I finally got to see Pan's Labyrinth (Spanish title is El Laberinto del fauno, or the labyrinth of the faun), Guillermo del Toro magical mixture of real life horror and a fantasy world that promises escape for a little girl enmeshed in evil. Del Toro, a Mexican director well known for his horror (Blade ][) and comic book adaptations (Hellboy) - genres I usually ignore, has come up with a real gem of a movie here, deftly blending real world events with a fantasy world, until you are no longer sure where one ends and the other begins.
The story begins with a twelve year old girl riding in the back of an ominous black car with her pregnant mother, as they journey to a house deep in the hills of 1944 Spain. The Spanish Civil War, one of the ugliest and most brutal on record, is winding down and the fascist government is stamping out the last of the rebel forces, which are hiding out in the rugged hills. Ofelia (a very winsome and believable Ivana Baquero) is a girl immersed in her books and imagination, which is especially useful given that her mom has just remarried a strict, brutal captain in the fascist army who is determined to wipe out the rebel forces.
On the ride in, Ofelia frees a strange looking insect, who shows up in her bedroom later that first night. The insect turns out to be a fairy, who leads Ofelia into a stone labyrinth found behind the house. There she is given three challenges to prove she is the long lost princess by an ugly old faun, which looks sort of like a Pan, the half man/half goat of Greek mythology.
These three challenges are interspersed with the horrors of guerrilla warfare in the mountains of Spain, and the beast that is her step father. Everything reaches a grand climax as the two worlds collide and shatter in myriad ways.
Wow, what a movie! I just loved it, but my review is colored by the way the movie hits two of my soft spots. The first is that a young girl is a key participant, and as the father of two little girls, the strife Ofelia has to survive really hits home. I'll do all I can to shield my girls from anything at all like what poor Ofelia has to face. Yet she does it in a courageous fashion.
Secondly, I have a real fascination with the Spanish Civil War, dating back to my reading of For Whom The Bell Tolls, a truly fascinating novel by Hemingway. It was such a bloody and intense conflict, a proving ground for World War II. But it was so ugly too. del Toro tells us in his commentary that of the 500,000 who died, half were either executed or otherwise killed in cold blood. It was truly a cruel and barbarous civil war, with atrocities committed on both sides, amply reflected in Pan's Labyrinth. If you want good histories of the conflict, read either Beevor or Thomas's The Spanish Civil War. The first is an excellent read, while the latter one is a behemoth, covering it all.
Funny thing about the movie though. I never saw it as a "fantasy" movie, unlike many others. I saw it as a brutal snapshot of an ugly civil war, fought both inside and outside the house. And Ofelia's flights of imagination were just her ways of escaping the cruelty all around her, and I never really bought into them as "real", even in the movie sense. It might be my natural antagonism towards fantasy movies, or perhaps just my overwhelming interesting the Spanish Civil War, or just my hard core un-imagination, but it worked for me as a straight story, with flights of fancy. And the ending tore me apart; it was perfect.
Kevin recently took me to task for not listening to the commentary tracks, so I did do it this time. It was by del Toro and was pretty informative. He explained the color changes over time, and what a long arduous process making this film turned out to be. He became an immediate friend of mine by calling horses stupid and dangerous, a claim I can heartily endorse!
All in all, a really great movie, one of the best I've seen this year. And one I need to add to my collection, especially if it should ever show up on HD DVD. I've added the prequel, del Toro's The Devil's Backbone to my Netflix queue.