Saturday, March 10, 2007

Movie Review: Pan's Labyrinth

So, I finally managed to get to the theater...

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) written, directed, and produced by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, and Sergi Lopez. Rated R. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults. Spanish, subtitled.

For other reviews, click here.

For screenshots, click here.

For the dissenting view from No Blasters, click here.

Now that you've all seen it already, I'll pronounce The Sci Fi Catholic's opinion anyway: It's good. Really good. Not something you're going to want to see fifty times like Star Wars, but good. This film much improves my opinion of del Toro, which was damaged by what he did to Hellboy.

The English title is a bad translation. The movie should be called The Faun's Labyrinth. There is neither explicit nor implicit indication in the film that the faun is supposed to be the god Pan. This caused me some confusion, but no matter.

It's 1944 Spain. Ofelia (Baquero) is an 11-year-0ld bookworm whose mother (Gil) has married the unambiguously nasty Capitan Vidal (Lopez), a fascist hunting for communist guerrillas. Her mother is sick with the pregnancy of Ofelia's baby half-brother, and Ofelia would like nothing better than to heal her mother and escape into a fairy kingdom far away from the world's troubles. As it turns out, she may have the opportunity, for she meets a creepy-looking faun (Doug Jones) who says she can be a fairy princess if she passes three tests before the full moon.

What rather surprises me is that so many reviewers are calling this movie "escapist," which suggests to me that so many reviewers are missing the point. There's nothing escapist about it. If it were escapist, Ofelia would get away from Capitan Vidal somewhere toward the movie's beginning and have a rolicking adventure with a cute faun in a happy alternate universe--more like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, to which some reviewers, apparently at a loss for parallels, are comparing it (No Blasters, in the link above, makes a probably more apt parallel to MirrorMask).

Rather than escaping the real world, Ofelia finds her relationship with the fairy world only complicates her real life and quickly gets her on the bad side of the easily angered Vidal, who shows his brutality early on by beating a man's face in with a bottle and then shooting a couple of people at point-blank range. Besides that, Faerie proves to be every bit as creepy and nasty as the real world, if not moreso.

Given the subject matter (young girl, fairies), the movie is startlingly brutal, spending most of its time in the real world with a little Faerie brutality and grossness mixed in. Though there are no protracted scenes of torture or mutilation, del Toro always gives a nice close-up shot of the start of such a scene before moving the camera elsewhere (a scene of a man sewing up his own sliced face is particularly squirm-inducing). Del Toro also likes to show people getting shot in the head; both the fascists and communists are apparently fond of capping downed soldiers execution-style.

It's being called a "fairy tale for adults," which indicates that we haven't learned anything since J. R. R. Tolkien wrote "On Faerie Stories," which appears in the volume Tree and Leaf. He patiently explains to us that most of these stories were never for children in the first place, that many of them have brutal content, that they ought not to be sanitized for children, and that children should either read them in their brutal forms or wait until they are older to read them. Which of those two options is best he doesn't decide, but he does state clearly that he read some gross fairy tales himself as a youngster and does not think he's any worse for it, though he may be the better.

That's not to say that you should take your children to Pan's Labyrinth. The Sci Fi Catholic doesn't dictate to parents what they ought or ought not let their kids see or read, though he will argue on the theory of the subject, but we do strongly caution that children are likely to be quite disturbed or frightened by the imagery of this film.

What this movie accomplishes, more than anything, is a profound meditation on the idea of fairy tale. It has all the basic elements of fairy tale, a classic premise, a moral at the conclusion, and a heavy emotional impact, but without the Disneyfication many fairy tales have undergone. It's damaged a bit by a slight philosophical confusion, as I'll explain in a moment, as well as the ambiguity of whether or not Faerie actually exists, an ambiguity I don't think was appropriate for this particular movie.

So, how's religion and morality? The movie has a good moral. As for religion, there's a Catholic bishop who says of the communists, "God has already saved their souls. What happens to their bodies now is of no consequence to him." Wrong on two counts. It's not clear if this bishop is supposed to be a heretic or if this is really del Toro's impression of Christianity. At any rate, the Spanish Church of this period probably deserves a little criticism, so we'll put that aside.

The USCCB review warns that the film has an "occult plot element," which I assume is a plot element that is kept secret and mysterious. No, but seriously, the "occult" elements are merely typical fantasy conventions drawn from folklore and shouldn't be considered problimatical. The USCCB reviewer has, of course, a legitimate pastoral concern; the "occult" plot element they have in mind is a scene in which Ofelia tries to save her mother through a magic formula. Viewers should, hopefully, understand that magic practices in fantasy are part of the same realm as the fairies and monsters--that is, they should not be viewed literally. Christian viewers should understand that such practices in real life are harmful, dangerous, and ineffective.

Now for the philosophical confusion. The movie appears to be not only against the fascists but with the communists, but Ofelia is trying to escape to a world where the fairies will reward her valor by crowning her reigning monarch. Hmm, sounds like a serious worldview clash. Perhaps the real world and Faerie aren't so well-integrated in this film as they appear at first glance.

Lastly, I facetiously suggested before that this movie might be related to The Labyrinth starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. There is actually a vague resemblance, by which I mean, the myth is similar; both movies feature young girls descending into Faerie to in some way help their baby brothers. The Labyrinth had a much more frightening villain than Pan's Labyrinth however, namely David Bowie in tight pants.

The Sci Fi Catholic's new rating system for Pan's Labyrinth--

Myth value: high
Quality: high
Religion/Ethics: medium

So, what's coming up in the near future? Well, we've got reviews in the works for Paul Sizer's excellent Little White Mouse Omnibus Edition. That long-promised essay on Glasshouse is coming. No, really. And of course we'll have two(?) more installments of "The Soul Chamber."
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