A Malicious Maze
I like a good gothic tale. Dark corners, pointed architecture and weird creatures are right up my alley. Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) is a writer-director who knows how to do gothic. He also knows how to use humor to take the edge off of his typically gruesome scenarios. With his latest film, the spanish-speaking El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), humor is non-existent and we get a harsh crossing of real-world horror mixed with a young girl’s macabre fantasy world. It’s an unsettling film, a dark story in a fairy-tale wrapper that is hard to enjoy but easy to admire.
It’s 1944. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is traveling with her pregnant mother to be united with her stepfather, the cruel Capitan Vidal (Sergi López). He has moved out to the wilderness with a division of troops to eradicate the rebels opposing Franco. It’s here that Ofelia meets a nasty looking faun, and is convinced that she could reclaim her place in the underworld by completing a few simple tasks. Meanwhile, the Capitan will stop at nothing to kill every rebel and any sympathizers--which may be under his very nose.
There are two stories going on at the same time here, Ofelia’s “fantasy” and the Capitan’s vicious crusade. You’d think that the movie would focus on the fantastical stuff, but the Capitan gets equal screen time, and then completely takes over for awhile. This is unfortunate, as Ofeila’s story is much more sympathetic and interesting, while her stepfather is cruel and unusual, killing locals (he beats one man by jabbing a wine bottle into his face), and torturing POWs (“If you can count to three without stuttering, I’ll let you go”).
The film is very gory, and often feels unnecessarily so. We get to see all kinds of disturbing images like a bone saw into a leg, a knife placed into a mouth and ripped out, and lots of bullets through the head. We get the idea, but for some reason del Toro wants us to wallow in his bloody mess. Ofelia encounters her own grotesqueries, but since they are more otherworldly, they are easier to take (that root that resembled a baby, however, was very hard to watch).
I also take issue when a filmmaker puts a young child into a hard-R rated film. It’s almost as if they’re innocence is being corrupted by placing them in a movie with such ugliness. This is a movie that no little girl should be watching, so why is one cast in it?
Pan’s Labyrinth is a well-crafted film with good performances and I have to admit I was never bored. It reminded me, in a way, of Woody Allen’s Match Point. That was another movie that was well-made, but when it was all over I found it hard to come up with good reasons to recommend it to others. I didn’t then, and I can’t now.