My review of Michael Apted's 49 UP (First Run Features), published in the November issue of SIGHT & SOUND, can now also be accessed freely on the magazine's website here. In today's mail, I received my advance copy of S&S's December issue, in which I review Jerzy Stuhr's THE BIG ANIMAL (Milestone Films), a magic realist story based on an unfilmed script by Krzysztof Kieslowski -- a review that will be made available on the S&S website next month. But, for me, the most interesting material in the new issue pertains to Guillermo del Toro's PAN'S LABYRINTH -- an engrossing interview with the writer-producer-director by Mark Kermode (in which he admits to refunding his entire director's fee in order to see the film realized the way he wanted it), and a very insightful review of the film by José Arroyo.
In brief, PAN'S LABYRINTH is set in 1944 Spain, where a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) follows her pregnant mother, the widow of a tailor, to join her new stepfather, a ruthless General in Franco's Civil Guard named Vidal (Sergi López). Aware of his cruelties and refusing her mother's desperate wish that she call Vidal "father," Ofelia closes out the threatening quality of the real world by immersing herself in fairy tale books and going for long walks in an ancient adjoining wooded labyrinth. There, she enters into a no-less-volatile fantasy world in which a darkly beguiling humanoid faun (not actually Pan, despite the English title) assigns her a series of fantastic tests to prove her real identity as Princess Moanna, the daughter of the Moon. Meanwhile, a group of resistance fighters camp in the woods surrounding Vidal's homebase, gathering the strength and awaiting the right moment to overthrow him.
"It's as if the dreaminess of Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was transported with Alice in Wonderland, only to erupt back into the real world as Goya-esque nightmares," Arroyo writes, nailing a heady and complex achievement that is, at the very least, del Toro's masterpiece. PAN'S LABYRINTH is a rare fantasy film in that it deals with childhood and enchantment without any of the cloying, trivializing sweetness that has infected the genre since Spielberg and Lucas entered the scene. It is also a virtually unique work of fantasy in that it understands, and communicates the understanding, that fantasy should exist to nurture and fortify us in trying times; that to flee into escapist fantasy is irresponsible, a shade of selfishness and surrender. It also has the courage to be a tragedy, and reminds us that tragedy can be an uplifting form of storytelling as long as the characters' dreams and wishes are fulfilled.
What I also find heartening and enjoyable about the film is the way its very original story, setting, and cast of characters echo, as they adhere to, the whole rich tradition of Spanish and Mexican fantasy cinema, including certain works of Luís Buñuel (LOS OLVIDADOS, EL BRUTO), Victor Erice (THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE), Jess Franco (TENEMOS 18 ANOS), Alejandro Jodorowsky (SANTA SANGRE), and even Paul Naschy (HOWL OF THE DEVIL), as well as del Toro's own most personal previous films (CRONOS, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE). PAN'S LABYRINTH can be read as the third film in a del Toro trilogy about childhood and fantasy, but I suspect these themes are too close to him to be relinquished from his future projects.
Don't steal this monster's grapes. He doesn't like it.
As José Arroyo points out, PAN'S LABYRINTH is very much a CGI/special effects movie, yet it is the film's characters that stick in the memory; the uncanny warmth they communicate is what makes us feel the pain they suffer so deeply, as well. Maribel Verdú is especially good, I think, as the General's cook Mercedes, who serves as Ofelia's surrogate mother during her real mother's difficult pregnancy and smuggles food and weapons to the rebels camping in the wilderness. There is also something extraordinary about the vividness of the film's setting and its chosen place in history; this is not an era that del Toro himself lived through, of course, yet he shows an understanding of Spain's political and psychological past (comparable, I think, to what Bertollucci's THE CONFORMIST and 1900 depicted about Italy in a parallel timeframe) that makes certain American counterparts like MIDWAY and PEARL HARBOR look as preposterous and shallow as they are. The closest thing to PAN'S LABYRINTH in my experience is Wolfgang Petersen's THE NEVERENDING STORY, a film I found excruciating and a fantasy world I felt emotionally barred from entering; del Toro's fantasy world, on the other hand, however strange and volatile, is never alienating and seems to tremble around our young heroine like a bubble that might burst at any moment, letting all the horrors of her reality hemorrhage back in.
Already screened at many film festivals and previews, PAN'S LABYRINTH opens nationwide on December 29th. Trust me: Brave the weather and experience this one on the biggest screen you can find. It is the finest film to date by the most talented and visionary craftsman currently working in the genre, and it exists so completely outside contemporary trends and fashions, I have no doubt that it will age not only gracefully but brilliantly. You can look forward to its release by visiting its impressive website, which features many trailers, clips, critics' blurbs (count how many times the word "masterpiece" is invoked) and discussion forums.