Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

A few weeks ago I was really happy that Deepa Mehta’s Water has been nominated in the Best Foreign Film category for the Oscars. I hadn’t seen or caught up with the buzz on the other nominees. Most of them are festival-circuit movies which are now getting major publicity and wider releases after the Oscar announcements. I watched Water sometime back and thought it was a fabulous movie (minus the song and dance of course)…but I hadn’t seen Mexico’s entry Pan’s Labyrinth. Finally I caught up with the movie masterpiece that has critics and general public going gaga in unison! And here’s a reason why…in my humble opinion Pan’s Labyrinth is the most beautifully written, directed, shot, edited and acted movie I have seen in my entire life! And it’d be a shame if the golden statue doesn’t go home with Guillermo Del Toro.

Now, I have to admit that I’m not that familiar with Del Toro’s work. I know he directed Hellboy and Blade 2, but action/horror is a genre that I usually stay away from. I’m definitely in the process of rectifying that…as I write this post, the entire Guillermo Del Toro collection of DVDs is on its way to my library account.

Pan’s Labyrinth is poetic and beautiful and nightmarish and hellish in the same breath. Set in a dark Spanish forest in a very dark time, 1944 - the civil war is over, and Franco's Falangists have long since subjugated the country. The last remnants of Republican resistance are fighting a rearguard action in the forested northern hills. A voice-over tells us of the existence of a timeless underground realm "where there are neither lies nor pain," a world that once had a princess. She left it to experience life on Earth and had her memory blotted out by the sun, but her father, the king of the underground, has always held out hope that her soul would return, even if in another body.

A little girl Ofelia (played with a heartbreaking and winning combination of grace and awkwardness by 11 year old Ivana Baquero) is traveling with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to the rural outpost of Ofelia's stepfather, the rigid and, we will soon learn, brutal fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, gives an extraordinary performance as the bestial captain, an irredeemable villain to rank with Ralph Fiennes' Nazi in "Schindler's List."), whose mission is to stamp out the embers of the Republican army. Ofelia's an imaginative girl, still in thrall to fairy tales as her adolescence approaches; she and her mother have a strong bond but are confused by each other. Captain Vidal is one of those types for whom confusion is a luxury, and he regards Ofelia as an unmitigated pest. His main concern, aside from slaughtering freedom fighters and keeping the camp well under his iron boot, is that Ofelia's mom bears him an intact son and heir.

The forest around the old mill where Ofelia and her mother come to live is full of signs and portents: old carved stones and half-buried, crumbling structures that attest to a primeval body of lore and belief. Ofelia's first steps waken an ancient and completely marvelous creature, a faun who might be the goat god Pan himself but who prefers to say only "I've had so many names ... old ones that only the wind and the trees can pronounce." Old though he is, the faun immediately recognizes the girl as the long-awaited Princess Moanna, returned to take her rightful place in the underground kingdom. Before she can do that, however, the faun insists, like any good fairy tale enabler, that Ofelia must perform three tasks before the moon is full "to make sure her essence has remained intact."Those tasks, each more daunting than the last, bring the girl into contact with a series of strange and wondrous creatures, from a giant toad with a huge tongue residing in a dark, muddy, insect-infested tunnel under a crumbling fig tree to a terrifying, flesh-eating monster called Pale Man (an echo of Francisco Goya's child-devouring Saturn?), whose eyes are to be found in the palms of his hands.

Between these creatures and what happens above ground with Vidal's army and the resistance, "Pan's Labyrinth" has its share of quite violent and potentially disturbing moments. Yet because the violence is used not for titillation but to create a world we can be fearful about, because the film lives up to its tagline that "Innocence has a power evil cannot resist," we see it all without wishing we were somewhere else. Ofelia’s adventures in the underworld are inter-cut with the guerrilla war in the woods. Del Toro has an unusual capacity to keep the narrative moving on two levels. Every character in the movie has a secret and a mission. The commander's housekeeper, formidable, fearless Mercedes (the movie's secret star, Maribel Verdú, best known as the sexy older woman in Y Tu Mamá También) is aiding the insurgents—as is the local doctor. Mercedes’s surreptitious visits to the rebels often coincide with Ofelia’s journeys into fairyland, and it may be that the film’s romantic view of the noble, vanquished Spanish Republic is itself something of a fairy tale.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a political fable in the guise of a fairy tale. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Fairy tales are mostly designed to console as well as terrify. What distinguishes Pan’s Labyrinth, what makes it so terrifyingly beautiful, is that it balances its own magical thinking with the knowledge that not everyone lives happily ever after.

The story has two endings, two final images that linger in haunting, unresolved tension. The film ends with a beautiful image of a princess, smilingly restored to her throne, bathed in golden subterranean light followed by a grown woman weeping inconsolably in the hard blue twilight of a world beyond the reach of fantasy. "Pan's" stories of what's happening underground and aboveground subtly reinforce each other, but the film refuses to say what exists and what does not. It not only leaves us free to determine how real Ofelia's world is, it trusts us to make the right decision

Now, we all know that Oscars sometimes tend to bestow its honors on less worthy candidates (Nicholas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas over Sean Penn for Dead Man Walking or Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love over Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, anyone?) Hopefully this time around they’ll get it right.

Go see Pan’s Labyrinth. But, do not, I repeat, do not take kids to this movie unless you're somehow convinced of their innate worldliness, knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and its grim aftermath and their ability to withstand nightmare-inducing horror. It's violent, creepy and unlike anything you've seen in a while. It's also insanely imaginative and beautiful. An awesome movie, but not for little kids. At all.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Swimming Lesson

Once upon a time, in the backwaters of Kolkata there lived a curious little girl in a house by the lake. She was too young to go school and unlike other little girls, she was not content playing with her dolls all day or chasing dragonflies in the long grass that grew in their garden. She loved to explore (the mishti in the fridge or the tamarind achar in the pantry); discover new things (a new box of water color in her sister’s cupboard); unravel secrets (a stack of “special” books on the top shelf in the store room)! Her curiosity got her into trouble many times, specially when her sister shrieked after finding her water color tubes crudely pressed and left open to dry ;or her mother discovered the empty box of sweets that was meant for guests! But all the scolding and the punishment in the world couldn’t suppress the indomitable curiosity that ran through the veins of this little girl!

Then came the most exciting day of her little life…the installation of a new tube-well in their backyard! A group of workers, their dark bodies shiny with sweat started excavating the earth in search of water. The little girl was fascinated. She had never seen anything like that before. The men dug into the belly of the earth, bringing out brown mud and then dark grey chunks of tightly packed clay. Since the house was right next to the lake, it didn’t take them long to find water…the workers hollered in excitement the moment muddy water started coming out of the ground! The little girl sat on the steps of their back porch and watched in awe. Her mother had forbidden her to go anywhere near the work site. But her little feet itched to go near the hole…see how deep the cavity was and how the water spewed out of the earth. But she was afraid of going against her mother’s wishes, knowing she’d get into deep trouble if she did.

Sometime in the afternoon the workers took a lunch break and her mother went to take her usual afternoon siesta. The little girl was supposed to lie down next to her mother and try to nap. But her mind was too excited for sleep. She lay there fidgeting, forming a plan in her little head. Soon her mother fell asleep…this was the opportunity she was waiting for! Very quietly she slipped off the bed and tip-toed out of the room and ran straight to the back porch. The workers were still resting after half a day of rigorous work. No one was near the hole…this was the time to take a quick peek; whet her curiosity! She approached the large cavity, the ground slippery with the wet mud…she could see the muddy brown water slowly filling the hole. She just wanted to take a closer look and leaned in.

It happened really fast. One moment she was leaning to look, next moment she was in the muddy water…drowning! She could feel herself sinking, and the more she struggled the deeper she went. She couldn’t breathe…she opened her mouth to scream and gulped in some muddy water! Terrified, she flailed her arms and legs only to find herself sinking even deeper! As darkness seemed to engulf her whole being, she felt a pair of hands grabbing her shoulders and pulling her out of the water…

I wait beside the swanky pool, dipping my toes gingerly in the warm water. Even after six weeks of swimming lessons with the hunky French instructor I’m still as nervous around water as I have been all my life. This is my new year’s resolution…I have to be able to swim by the end of the year! I’ve been trying to overcome my fear of water all my adult life without much luck! Can this self-proclaimed Master Coach change a life-time of trepidation in a matter of few weeks?

“Bonjour Madame! How are vee zis morning?” I eye the steaming cup of coffee in his hand longingly and grumble “Sleepy and cold!! And I haven’t had coffee this morning!” He takes a long swing from the cup and says “Get into ze water…it’ll wake you up! Better zan coffee!!” I obey his orders and get into the pool…the water is warm and I feel confident waddling around in the shallow end. But the tyrant I’m paying to teach me swimming doesn’t care about my comfort zone! With one last swig of coffee, he jumps into the deep end and hollers “Ze party is over…get to work!! Stop day-dreaming!”

We’ve been doing this dance for weeks now! I’m supposed to dunk my head in the water, exhale, blow bubbles and then float on my back, kick, come back up, float on my tummy, kick some more and somewhere in the middle I’m to assert my independence and do all these all on my own! Of course that doesn’t happen. I stand at the shallow end, nodding my head like an obstinate mule completely impervious to anything Frenchie has to say till he shakes his head in frustration and muttering in French he’ll physically drag me to the deep water and dunk me!! After a couple of gulps of disgusting chlorinated water my foggy brain will wake up and I’ll get into the routine with much bitching and moaning as if its me who’s doing him a favor by learning to swim!

I hold my breath and go down into the water. But my head keeps bobbing near the surface. “Non, non, non!!” He yells and drags me up. With elaborate and sweeping hand gestures of a ballet dancer, he explains my mistake. “Lady, you need to get rid of all ze hair from your chest!!” Huh? I look down at the rather generous display of…ahem…chest, but I don’t see any hair. What on earth is he talking about?
“Hair?” I ask him tentatively.
“Non! Not hair! HAIR! How do you say it?“ He’s clearly frustrated with my stupidity. “HAIR! HAIR!” He rubs his hands all over his naked chest (which by the way is completely hairless). He inhales deeply and exhales slowly! “Zat hair! Get it?”
Ohhhh! Duh! Realization dawns on me! How stupid! I inhale deeply through my nose and go down into the water and exhale, feeling my body get lighter and lighter! At least, the lesson started on a good note. Hope it stays that way.

“Great job, lady!” I get a high five. “Ok, now float on your back!” I try but I can’t let go…I have trust issues you see! What if he doesn’t catch me when I fall!! Panic grips my heart! I look over my shoulder to check if he’s still there! Frenchie knows what I’m thinking.
“Don’t vorry” he says “I’m right behind you…I von’t let you drown!”
I close my eyes and fall back. He catches my head, supporting me till I float. My arms and legs are stiff as board, my neck literally sticking out of the water.
“Relax ze neck and open your eyes. Look at me." I look up...not a bad view really. "Your ‘ed and hears should be in ze water! Feel ze water support you!” Dutifully I relax my neck and let the water come to my face. It begins then. I start to feel my old panic rise…the water closing in on me, an inch at a time; first covering my ears, touching my cheeks and then nearing my nose…like a coffin lid closing on my face, smothering me. I lose my concentration…I want to stand up, feel the solid ground under my feet! But I forget the technique; instead I start flailing my arms and legs, splashing water...unable to get vertical! In my terror I reach behind me and grab Frenchie’s upper arm! With one swift push on my shoulder he steadies me and I finally find firm ground under my feet! I stand crestfallen, hanging my head down, ashamed of my rather juvenile behavior! He rubs his right arm with a grimace on his face. “You need to cut zose nails lady!!” I look up and see a set of half-moon welts on his well-formed biceps where my nails had dug in. Ugggh!! Can it get any worse than this!!?? I mentally invoke mother earth to divide and take me in…and save me from this embarrassing situation!

But that doesn’t happen; instead Frenchie thrusts two neon colored sponge noodles towards me, "Okay, lets try something else!"and instructs me to float on my tummy. “Put ze ‘ed in ze water and exhale through ze mouth. Relax ze arms and then keek.” I follow his instructions to the best of my ability and start kicking in earnest. “Non, non, non!!” he bellows again. “Not from your knees! Keek from ze heeps!!” He pats his own gluteus maximus as if to explain to a child who’s just learning to identify body parts! I have no idea how to kick from my hips but I make an effort. That seems to please him. “Zats better!!” He quips happily. “Now keek, tap ze water with ze top of your feet!” I hold on to the noodles for my dear life and do as he asks. We cross the length of the pool a few times like this.
“Now, exhale completely under water and zen quickly come up for more hair and go back down!” Sounds simple, right? It probably is quite simple! But I botch it…rather bad! I take a deep breath…exhale completely underwater and come up to inhale more and again go straight back into the water, but this time I forget to close my mouth! As a result about half a gallon of disgusting chlorine water get into my mouth, my nose, my lungs! I choke, cough, splutter and go blind momentarily. Yet another panic attack, followed by some thrashing around and then I get pulled up. “Concentré! Don’t rush! Understand ze principes of breathing!” he barks at me. By this time I’m at my wits end; tears of anger and frustration threatening to spill out any moment. But I’m not the kind of person who cries in public. Frenchie sees my distress and softens a bit. “Don’t vorry” he says,” Your mind needs to get used to being in ze water! It’ll happen! Just relax! Oui?” I shake my head side to side. He looks very confused. “Is zat a yes or a no?”
“Yes, that was a yes! “ I nod my head vigorously again. I've had it for the day. I want a hot shower and get a latte and a slice of pumpkin bread!
“Okay, sounds good!” He tries to copy my nodding. “It takes practice to get it right! Merci beaucoup!” I retort and climb out of the pool, bracing myself against the sudden change of temperature, my teeth already chattering. Frenchie climbs out behind me and gently wraps a towel around my shoulders. “You are a funny lady!” he guffaws still trying to get the Indian nod.
“And you are a débile, Monsieur!” I mutter under my breath! I pick up my belongings and head to the locker room. “Next week then?”
“Oui. Next week. Au revoir, madame!”
“Yes, au revoir!”