Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Creative Spill from Del Toro's Mind: A Review of Pan's Labyrinth

This is a review I wrote for the radio. I once had a radio segment, but those days are long gone.

I want to start off by pointing out that Pan’s Labyrinth is food for both the regular moviegoers and critics. It’s receiving so much praise not by accident, but because it’s genuinely a well-made and entertaining film. The minority of audience members who have disliked it have criticized it for being too much like other fairy tale films. Or Too much like other war films. Vidal has been compared to Goethe from Schindler’s list. Ofelia’s adventure has been accused of being a reconstruction of Sarah’s journey in the famous film, Labyrinth. But these opinions are far and few between. Of course Pan’s Labyrinth is going to assume the shape of a typical war film and a typical fantasy film. But what is atypical about it is its ability to mold the two genres together, and create something unique. If we’re going to criticize Pan’s Labyrinth for plagiarism we might as well call up Jim Henson and Wolfgang Petersen and tell them Guillermo Del Toro stole from their films The Never Ending Story (1984) and Labyrinth (1986) and decided to make a box-office career out of their imagination. I don’t see any resemblance between the creatures of either film and the incredibly inventive creatures of Pan’s. Perhaps some narrative structural elements are common. The adventure, the journey, the ambiguity of reality and fantasy. But in any fairy tale film, these elements will apply. This by no means takes away from the film’s value or quality. So, with this tangent out of the way, I’d like to express why I’ve been so blown away by this film.

As I said, Pan’s Labyrinth is appealing both to the mainstream and the critical audiences. It’s visually stimulating, the sound editing is efficient, the directing is optimal, even the acting is pretty damn good. Gore, and horror are not scarce, but not over done either. The violence is necessary to the plot, and the camera angles work to demonstrate the viciousness of these scenes. But what makes this film so stunning is the story. I’m beyond impressed that Del Toro was capable of creating such an imaginative piece of art. Now, there are many films just as breath taking and powerful. There are many films that speak to their audience loudly and leave them with an emotional response. The story of Pan’s Labyrinth was born in Del Toro’s mind, and his mind alone. Children of Men, is a good example of a film I’ve recently viewed and felt moved, disturbed, enlightened, and the like. The fact that it made me feel so strongly alone makes me appreciate it for what it is, a powerful film. But, it’s a film adapted from a novel. It’s a regurgitation of someone else’s imagination, and re-created appropriately for the screen. I by no means want to diminish Children of Men’s excellence or Alfonso Cuaron’s ability to screen write. It is incredibly difficult to adapt a novel into a screenplay. Not only because you must face the possibility of horrific scrutiny from lovers of the novel, but also it is rather hard to take someone else’s creative expression and stay true to it but also making it your own. But my point is, that Del Toro created an entire universe, which only a fragment of was shown in the film. Ok, so what do I mean by this?

Firstly, for a fantasy world like that in Pan’s Labyrinth to exist, one must develop the details. Since we only see a small portion of this mystical underworld in the film, we don’t really know what the rest of it contains, but it does exist in some form elsewhere…in Del Toro’s mind. Basically, when writing a screenplay as ingenious as Pan’s, if you want to accurately depict a small portion of another universe, or a world unlike the one we see today, then it is imperative to build the foundation. So what I’m saying is, although we only see a small segment of the underworld, Del Toro, at some point, perhaps during brainstorming, perhaps in his mind alone, had to fully create every detail of that universe. Why it is, where it is, how it functions, who lives there, who does what, is it dark? Is it beautiful? How old is this world? All of these things are details that must be acquired in order to express even the tiniest of imagery or portion of that world. If this ‘background’ or ‘foundation’ was not set first, then what we see as an audience member wouldn’t ring true. Wouldn’t make sense. And wouldn’t have the effect it has on us. So, for a screenwriter to imagine this world and make it come to life so beautifully in the language of film, is an astounding display of imagination. A display we don’t see enough of in films today. And for that, I say give the Oscar for best original screenplay to Guillermo Del Toro and his beautiful mind.

On an analytical and deeper level, I’d like to take a minute to explore some allegorical structures found in the film. Interestingly, there is a bridge formed within the film’s narrative between the resistance fighters and the Captain and this bridge is found within Ofelia. While the political spectrum is very black and white, there is a tremendous amount of ambiguity surrounding Ofelia and her journey. Is the underworld real? Is she really a princess? Or is this a part of her mind? We could sit here and debate this for hours and neither of us would come up with any definitive answer with enough evidence because, problematically there’s evidence for both sides. I won’t get into detail as to what this evidence is because I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but it’s important when seeing this film not to stress too much about whether or not this journey is real. What IS important, however, is the fact that it really is so ambiguous. The structure of the narrative following the resistance fighters and the military is so cut and dry that I’m tempted to say there are archetypes present. Now, I won’t use that word since it has a bit of a negative connotation, but I’ll elaborate on this point. Captain Vidal and his officials are always portrayed as merciless, cold, and evil. While the resistance fighters are innocent victims, good people, and warm hearted Spaniards. There is no ambiguity here. The story developed around these two groups of people is very much a good vs. evil structure. But Ofelia’s story is often in question. Can Ofelia trust Pan? Is she REALLY the princess of the underworld? And even if she is, does this underworld exist only in her mind? However frightening or suspicious her journey seems to be, Ofelia continues to explore and determine her own identity. She does this not by obeying Pan’s every wish, not by obeying her mother or her cruel stepfather the Captain, she does this by her own means. So, having said that, there’s something fairly interesting that most would catch onto and that is, the parallel drawn between Ofelia and the Captain. Vidal is accused of being the type of person who “obeys without question.” Clearly, Vidal being the villain, this is not a desirable trait to possess. In Spain, at the time of 1944, grave repression took place due to Franco’s recent victory. Executions were distributed like candy, and Spain was in a state of fear. Those who “obey without question” were those who obeyed Franco. Those who questioned were killed. A smaller version of this is revealed in Pan’s when the Captain kills two farmers without remorse, kills the doctor, and well, kills anything really. Spain’s repressive state caused darkness among the people everywhere, but nobody who wanted to keep their lives would speak of their fear. The Captain is a man able to obey without question, and in retrospect is of weaker character. A little while after Vidal is accused of being one who obeys without question, Ofelia is told to obey Pan without question. Exactly in those words “obey me without question.” In the end, she disobeys him, but her disobedience allows her to become who she’s meant to be, and on a spiritual level conquer Vidal entirely.

As an aspiring screenwriter, I can’t stress enough how much this masterpiece has spoken to me. Both on the surface and deeper levels of my film viewing experiences. If you can let go, and accept its similarities to other fairy tale films, other war films, and just take it in, you’ll love it. Every genre film will carry common traits, and this one is a fusion of two very different genres yet it blends to make one unique and compelling film.

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