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Friday, October 12, 2007

Movie Review: Pan's Labrynth

Pan's Labyrinth by Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro is set in Spain in 1944. Although Franco has won the Spanish Civil War there are still pockets of resistance by bands of republican loyalists. The heroine a 12 year old girl named Ofelia, played beautifully by Ivana Baquero, is traveling with her heavily pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to meet her step-father, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal is in command of a small military base deep in the countryside.

Vidal's brutal and callous character is quickly revealed. He is only concerned for his wife because she is carrying his son. He cares nothing for Ofelia. When after he casually murders two local farmers, accusing them of being republican sympathizers, it is revealed that they probably were innocent of the charge he blames his underlings for the mistake. His pleasure in inflicting pain, is shown when he tortures a captured partisan.

Why did Carmen marry the sadistic Vidal. In her discussions with Ofelia she hints at her need for male companionship. Vidal might have seemed a good meal ticket. Whatever the reason it is clearly now a very poor choice. Of cause Carmen might not have been given a choice at all, vidal takes what he wants.

Ofelia is certainly dissatisfied with her mother's passivity. This is possibly a reason for her attraction to the house keeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). Mercedes' brother is one of the partisans, and she gives them assistance and intelligence from the military post.

Another character placed in a difficult position is the doctor (Alex Angulo), who attends Carmen but also provides medical assistance to the partisans. The doctor places his life in jeopardy when he puts a tortured partisan out of his misery.

The brutality of war is underscored by the fact that at film's end most of the principals are dead. Even though the republican partisans win this battle, any viewer with a sense of history will realize that Franco will rule Spain for another three decades. If this was all to the film, then it would be an interesting though brutal evocation of the horrors of war. What raised this film beyond the merely interesting is the addition of a fantasy theme to the brutal realism.

From the fantasy perspective, Ofelia is not just a 12 year old child caught up in a violent world over which she has little control, she has a mythic significance and a world where she has some control and options. She is required to preform three tasks, and her guide and mentor in the fantasy world is an old and very tall Fawn. One issue flowing through the fantasy scenes is the trustworthiness of the Fawn. In most of the fantasy tales that I am familiar with the young hero (or heroine) is guided by an older human mentor; Gandalf and Aragon for Frodo; Dumbledor for Harry Potter; Belgarath and Polgara for Belgarion. We have a clear understanding of the motivations, morality and trustworthiness of the human mentors. The motivations and honesty of the non-human fawn are not clear. This is particularly empahsised when the real import of the last task is finally revealed.

How seriously should we treat the fantasy theme? There are some observations that support the view that we should treat the fantasy element seriously. It does bookend the film. The first sequence sets the scene for the mythic story line, and the last scene shows the resolution of the fantasy storyline. The fantasy creatures are very solid and lifelike, right down to the crunch as faries are eaten by the White Man. There is nothing cartoonish about the fawn, he has a real dishevelled appearance. Observations supporting the view that that the fantasy should not be taken seriously include: that Ofelia reads fantasy books so the fantasy might be just her refuge from the harsh reality that surrounds her and that her step-father cannot see the fawn when she it talking to it. In the end the answer to the question is unclear and ambiguous.

Often the best stories are not "tied up with a bow" but have an element of uncertainty. The grim reality of Spain in 1944 is unequivocal, but it is the ambiguity of Ofelia's fantasy that makes this film one of my favourites.

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