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.

13 comments:

Spicy Chai said...

Hey! Thanks so much for your comment on my blog! Strangely, this is the second recommendation I've had for Pan's Labyrinth in 2 days... I'll try and find it.

Apoplexy said...

ei blog ki sudui reviews?

Shreemoyee said...

It won the best foreign film prize didn't it?

Nautilus said...

@Shreemoyee: Letters From Iwo Jima got the Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. Oscars will be announced on Feb 25th :-) Lets wait and watch!

Madhupa said...

That review was amazingly well written - now I gotta go and watch the movie somehow !!!

Arunima said...

will I be able to download it from the net?

let me try.

Haven't watched water too.

Nautilus said...

@Arunima: I know that Water is available for download...not too sure about Pan's Labyrinth. I can tell you this much...its meant to be enjoyed on the big screen :-)

~IRIS~ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
~IRIS~ said...

Hey! Thank you for coming over to my blog and leaving a comment. I haven’t seen both these movies, but your write-up has doubled up my curiosity now. Thanks for posting it!
:-)

Ghetufool said...

test test test

Ghetufool said...

i am trying to leave a comment ever since you wrote this one. beautiful review.

holi wishes said...

Thanks for this wonderful review...i'll be sure to watch this film as soon as possible...and well Holi is almost here as well...so enjoy some of the fun and joy of this festival just hop over to my blog on Holi Celebrations and enjoy all that i've posted there...i'm sure you'll enjoy your visit!!!

Anonymous said...

You are such a fag.

That is all.