frightfully enchanting…

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In 1944 fascist Spain, a girl, fascinated with fairy-tales, is sent along with her pregnant mother to live with her new stepfather, a ruthless captain of the Spanish army. During the night, she meets a fairy who takes her to an old faun in the center of the labyrinth. He tells her she’s a princess, but must prove her royalty by surviving three gruesome tasks. If she fails, she will never prove herself to be the the true princess and will never see her real father, the king, again. ~Tim at Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com)

El laberinto del fauno is an incredibly beautiful film written, directed, and produced by Mexican Film-maker Guillermo del Toro. My husband and I saw it in the theater (with subtitles) when it was released, and we knew we would own it. Despite my immediate love for the film, it also terrified me. My tolerance for things that spin, swing, or scare decreases every year. I give myself a couple years before I will have to paint my room in rainbows and lie still looking at them. I watched El laberinto del fauno once when we were able to own it (I think), but that was a long time ago. The other evening was well past time for another viewing.

El laberinto del fauno is not billed as a horror film. IMDb would categorize it as a Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, and/or War Film. The most simple answer is that the film is a Dark Adult Fairy Tale. The film is Dark, and though the protagonist is 11, this fairytale is not for children. And yet, the brutality of both the real and fairytale are not outside the purview of children—traditionally.

As gruesome and brutal as it is enchanting and spellbinding, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a movie intended for adults, not children, as its “R” rating indicates. Some kids under 17 will find it fascinating (especially if they know Spanish or don’t mind reading subtitles), but it’s a harsh and uncompromising film. ~Roger Ebert*

I closed my eyes or looked away more than once. And once I needed to cover my ears and hum (the bottle to face scene).

Del Toro is known for his creatures, his fantastical imagination and equally brilliant way of bringing them to life. A partner in crime to this venture is Doug Jones who plays Faun and Pale Man. Faun is rendered with this incredible body that looks carved from wood; better is that is snaps and creaks. His presence is heavy with portent and surfaces in and out of the background. Pale Man is flat out horror. For her second task, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) ascends through a door into a grand hall and passes a table laden with a sumptuous feast. At the head of the table is this hideous eye-less creature, waiting, unmoving. Behind him and up along the wall are paintings of his consumption of children…

The clicking of his nails. Ofelia’s panted breath. While the music is lovely and atmospheric, it does not seek to dominate the sounds of clicks and skitters of the mantis/fairy, or the often heard breaths of Ofelia in panic, among other effects. The sound crew did marvelous work.

For all the monstrous creatures emerging from the fairytale, the most terrible creature is Capitán Vidal. It takes work to be scarier than Pale Man, but Sergi López succeeds. He is handsome, strong, moderate features, cut jaw. He is rigid and unsmiling. There is a touch of insanity present. And there is really no limit to his evil. He is unrelenting in his mission: to purify Spain, and have a son to carry on his familial legacy/name.

***

El laberinto del fauno is visually stunning. The cast of faces are entrancing. And the setting is equally compelling. The old mill is incredible, blues and grays. The labyrinth suggestively worn and haunted. The woods form their own labyrinthine structure, hiding away the Spanish guerrilla anarchists. The setting is saturated with the mood of Tales, and Ofelia’s tasks explore all three spaces: the wood, the Mill, and the Labyrinth. The narrative alternates between the worlds, even as they evidently overlap.

Whether Ofelia actually sees Faun or not, is not clear (to every viewer). It would be plausible that Ofelia is using the Tale as a means of escape from her violent and hated surroundings; that she would seek a benevolent true Father over the tyrannical Stepfather. However, the Tale is not a thornless bouquet of roses. If it were too easy would that make it untrustworthy?—I don’t know. Just the same, both worlds hold an untoward level of violence.  But only one offers choice; an attractive element for a powerless girl child; an attractive element for anyone made powerless by their government.

What [Faun] actually offers is not good or evil, but the choice between them, and Del Toro says in a commentary that Ofelia is “a girl who needs to disobey anything except her own soul.” The whole movie, he says, is about choices. ~Ebert **

The characters Mercedes (Maribel Verdú)  and the Doctor (Álex Angulo) are, too, offered choices from a world other than that of The Mill’s. And they are burdened with their own tasks—equal to Ofelia’s own. It is that a choice does in fact exist for them that is made important in the film.

Capitán Vidal: You could have obeyed me!
Doctor: But captain, to obey – just like that – for obedience’s sake… without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.

Needless to say, the remark did not go unpunished, and in such a way that made Vidal look the coward. The ability to question is worth fighting for.

***

(left) Maribel Verdú as Mercedes

What I noticed and enjoyed in watching the film this time were the parallels drawn between Mercedes and Ofelia.  Their tasks were similar; have the key, deliver aide, keep clear of the monsters. Both had brothers…[didn’t take notes, was too busy gripping the husband’s hand and arm to bother with a pen.]

What is easily caught in first viewing is that Ofelia’s mother, Carmen, is representative of the women’s role in the new Spain: looking beautiful, remaining silent, and bearing sons. Mercedes is the alternate version offered via resistance, a version that appeals to Ofelia independent-mind. Both Carmen and Mercedes are admittedly afraid—and not completely certain of what they are doing (whether it is right or not). Ofelia weighs them both, as she weighs both worlds (real and Tale) judiciously, though not without desperation. But there is more than just mere Survival to answer to. Ofelia is “a girl who needs to disobey anything except her own soul.”

“Del Toro talks of the “rule of three” in fables (three doors, three rules, three fairies, three thrones)” (Ebert**). There are the three main characters whose point-of-view we are offered throughout: Ofelia, Mercedes, and Vidal. I am unfamiliar with the rule: but the threes are apparent.There is also the echo of objects: keys, time keepers, knives, hidden doors, dens. The story behind each, person or object, is drawn into comparison and contrast.

***

While enchanted with El laberinto del fauno upon first viewing. I couldn’t help but be a bit baffled by the story. In part, this is due to my ignorance of events following the Spanish Civil War. Most of anything I know is from Italo Calvino texts and the University Course I took on him. I had wondered why that place and time. Still wondered this last time. I could get the parallels between the fighters in the woods’ resistance to ceasing to exist, and Faun’s desire avoid oblivion as well.

Faun:  The moon will be full in three days. Your spirit shall forever remain among the humans. You shall age like them, you shall die like them, and all memory of you shall fade in time. And we’ll vanish along with it. You will never see us again.

Mercedes and Ofelia are pivotal to the survival of each. I find it lovely that both represent realms of free-thought, a return to a more Natural, Original State—or at least one that would me more fitting.

I had expected that the film would follow closer to this description (as borrowed from IMDb’s page): “In the fascist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.” The escape it talks about is misleading (though I am sure necessarily). I thought the Tale would be escapist, not tormenting—and certainly without its level of sacrifice. [How easily do I forget the good traditional fairly tale.]

I like Ebert’s reading of the film:

Ofelia’s challenges do not arise like arbitrary plot obstacles; they are organic to her (and the movie’s) development. The girl learns not only to follow instructions, and that there are heavy prices to pay for failing to abide by them, but also to trust her own instincts about right and wrong. In order to find her true self, she must also find the strength to break the rules imposed by authority.

An individual conscience: What could be a more powerful anti-fascist weapon than that?*

What makes Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” so powerful, I think, is that it brings together two kinds of material, obviously not compatible, and insists on playing true to both, right to the end. Because there is no compromise there is no escape route, and the dangers in each world are always present in the other. **

While Ofelia often resembles Alice from Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), she does not disappear into the other realm for her adventure. The parallels are much more intimate. Indeed, the future for Ofelia (in the Underworld), Vidal (a pure Spain), and Mercedes (a freed Spain) is yet in the offing—are in Limbo, as yet undecided. They are still battling it out in a same place/plane, fighting for their way of life, and there is a race against time. It could go any way.

At the end, Ofelia’s is the path still lingering in indecision, as the viewer has to decide whether Faun’s world existed. Had Ofelia taken her story too far? It seems that a story was indeed plotted—the stone image in the Labyrinth of Faun, Moanna/Ofelia, and the baby; the baby Faun wouldn’t address when asked. What about the Underworld parents’ likeness?

A.O. Scott writes,

That realm, in which Ofelia is thought to be a long-lost princess, may exist only in her imagination. Or maybe not: its ambiguous status is crucial to the film’s coherence. Like the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Mr. Del Toro is less interested in debunking or explaining away the existence of magic than in surveying the natural history of enchantment.***

Whether the magical realm was real or not, during the film I didn’t want it to disappear. I felt for Faun’s cause. “We’ll vanish […] You will never see us again.” Carmen and Mercedes were both lost to their childhood and magical places; though Carmen begged for Ofelia to come to the realization much more quickly. Those were painful scenes. Carmen felt abandoned by such realms (you get to feeling by both faeries and God) but she was helped by the strange Mandrake Root. Magic keeps company with nature (the fig tree). Tales comfort the child, Ofelia—at the very least via information; answers to Life Questions.

Fairy tales (and scary movies) are designed to console as well as terrify. What distinguishes “Pan’s Labyrinth,” what makes it art, is that it balances its own magical thinking with the knowledge that not everyone lives happily ever after. ~Scott***

Not everyone lives happily ever after. El laberinto del fauno has a difficult ending.

The story has two endings, two final images that linger in haunting, unresolved tension. Here is a princess, smilingly restored to her throne, bathed in golden subterranean light. And here is a grown woman weeping inconsolably in the hard blue twilight of a world beyond the reach of fantasy. ~Scott

Sean is fairly convinced by the second image. He argues the sequence. As do I. Ofelia’s smile and last breath after the reunion at court. 1- Is she escaping, finally, into a sublime image, into consolation. Purgatory decided? 2- Or is the choice to place the death image after the reunion to complete the framing of the Film? 3- How much does this matter?

That “unresolved tension” is difficult. It is hard to feel the Hope that the reunion scene would offer. It could almost make the viewer even more mournful—as inconsolable as Mercedes.

Ofelia: Mercedes, do you believe in fairies?
Mercedes: No. But when I was a little girl, I did. I believed in a lot of things I don’t believe anymore.
Ofelia: Last night a fairy visited me.

Mercedes does not deny their existence. She is of a similar quandary as many members of El laberinto del fauno’s audience. Things may exist for others, but they no longer exist for me.

***

The ending narration speaks to Legacy and Immortality. It is a reminder as to how Immortality is won through Legacy, and through Story. It reminds me of Vidal’s pocket watch and the story of his father. It reminds me of the story Ofelia tells her unborn sibling:

Many, many years ago in a sad, faraway land, there was an enormous mountain made of rough, black stone. At sunset, on top of that mountain, a magic rose blossomed every night that made whoever plucked it immortal. But no one dared go near it because its thorns were full of poison.

Men talked amongst themselves about their fear of death, and pain, but never about the promise of eternal life. And every day, the rose wilted, unable to bequeath its gift to anyone… forgotten and lost at the top of that cold, dark mountain, forever alone, until the end of time.

Ofelia, Mercedes, and Vidal ruminate on the fear of death, and pain, and about the promise of eternal life—in one fashion or the other. And del Toro would not “forget them, nor lose them;” and neither shall I.

*****

please note: El laberinto del fauno is in Spanish. The use of Subtitles would be best (if you can find dubbed, don’t). Also, del Toro did the translation, wrote the subtitles; so as to avoid the gross errors with a previous film El espinazo del diablo (Devil’s Backbone, 2001); This film is considered a “spiritual sequel” to El espinazo del diablo (per wiki).

****

El laberinto del fauno, “The Faun’s Labyrinth” 

or in U.S. release Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Producers: Guillermo del Toro; Alfonso Cuarón; Bertha Navarro; Frida Torresblanco; Alvaro Augustin

Written by Guillermo del Toro

Narrated by Pablo Adán

Starring: Ivana Baquero (Ofelia), Doug Jones (Faun, Pale Man) Sergi López (vidal), Maribel Verdú (Mercedes), Ariadna Gil (Carmen), Álex Angulo(Doctor)

Music by Javier Navarrete

Cinematography by Guillermo Navarro

Editing by Bernat Vilaplana

Studio: Tequila Gang; Estudios Picasso; Telecinco Cinema

Distributed: Warner Bros. (Spain); Picturehouse (US); New Line Cinema (Home Video)

112 minutes.

*Roger Ebert Dec. 29, 2006 Review; **Roger Ebert Aug. 25, 2007 Review; ***A.O. Scott's NY Times Review
Wiki link "Pan's Labyrinth"; IMDb link "Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
an interview with Charlie Rose featuring Mexican Film-makers and friends: Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel).

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Carl V. says:

    Wonderful review of an absolutely magical, meaty film. I too saw this in the theater, twice I believe, and then purchased it the second it came out. I recently purchased it again for little or nothing in the now defunct HD DVD version as I have an HD DVD player for my X-Box. It is one of those special films where you see new things each time you watch it and you experience different things each time as well. I for one always lean towards the magic being real in movies like this, so for me the ending was tragic in that Ofelia was lost to this realm, but I believe in that magical realm as well.

    The extras on this DVD are very good and worth viewing if you have not done so. Not only is it interesting to hear del Toro talk about fairy tales, but the Charlie Rose interview is incredible to watch. The three film makers featured have such a chemistry and such passion for what they do that you cannot help but be inspired.

    It has been a year at least since my last viewing and now you have me wanting to watch it all over again.

    1. L says:

      thanks.. that interview with Charlie Rose was fun and inspiring: to have collaborative friends like that! I added the link to the bottom of the post, thanks for the find. I need to see the extras on Pan’s Labyrinth.

  2. ibeeeg says:

    As usual L…great review. I do know, without a doubt, per your gripping review (umm..gripping your husbands arm), that I will in no way watch this movie. I have huge troubles with movies that cause me to squeeze my eyes shut, ears in fingers, humming out loud….huge troubles because I am one big scardey cat. Actually, it is rather amazing to me that I love Torchwood as much as I do because I usually have troubles with shows like that one….too much suspense.
    I am rather dull. LOL I do however love foreign films with subtitles, and that aspect does intrigue me a bit about this movie.

    1. L says:

      thanks..

      while I wouldn’t say that the violence is gratuitous, it is horrifying and none would blame you for best avoiding this film on that alone. the film has very disturbing images.

      I was pleased with the subtitles. and they are not overwhelming as del Toro says so much with image alone. I was reassured to find that del Toro provided his own.

  3. I “enjoyed” this movie, as much as one can enjoy something as unflinching as it is. Artistically, the movie is astonishing. The characters, sets, costumes, all of it, they’re all beautiful. The plot is great, too, pulling heartstrings and upsetting the stomach accordingly. Yet, the darkness of the film almost makes it too much to watch too frequently. I remember my wife not liking anything at all about the movie, and I doubt she’ll e’er watch again.

    Great review. After watching this, I rented Mirrormask, cause the styles seemed similar. I remember thinking it was kinda cool, but definitely not as good as Del Toro’s masterpiece.

    1. L says:

      “unflinching” is a good word. I cannot watch it too often, and yet when I see it I’ve regretted waiting so long. The sheer beauty of it compels me to love it…even as the monstrosities have me peeking through my fingers.

      I tried watching MirrorMask once, but for whatever reason at the time, I lost interest. As a fairytale, I understand it to be wonderful. Will have to make a renewed effort.

  4. Carl V. says:

    Mirrormask certainly isn’t in the same class as Pan’s Labyrinth, but then again it really isn’t meant to be. It is a spiritual sequel to Labyrinth and as such I think it succeeded marvelously and is a wonderful little film. Del Toro is a much more seasoned film maker and I think Pan’s is certainly one of his masterpieces. I agree, it is too dark to watch over and over again on a regular basis, but at the same time I believe there is a lot of hope and beauty in the film which does reward pulling it out on occasion to view again.

    My wife is somewhat in the same boat. It isn’t that she wouldn’t watch it again as she has done so, but my daughter and I would watch this far more often than she would want to if we were comparing.

    Although not as inspiring or deep as Pan’s, I would also recommend the film, The Orphange, which was sponsored/produced by del Toro. It is a dark and foreboding, but not gory, horror/suspense film which is very, very well done. And scary in a good creep-out sort of way.

    Unfortunately there are precious few films that are as incredible as Pan’s Labyrinth, that are true works of art and storytelling. While not nearly as good, The Fall is another one that is visually brilliant and has a nice, solid story…and a story within a story…to it.

    1. L says:

      I need to psyche myself up to see The Devil’s Backbone, but the creepy children factor is supposedly more fierce than his The Orphanage, and creepy children scare me terribly.

      The first thing that comes to mind with The Fall is the vibrant colors, and the fashion shoot feel, making shots into portraits. Certainly a visual feast. Has been a while since I’ve seen that one. Thanks for bringing it to mind.

  5. Debi says:

    I enjoyed this review so very much–thank you!!! I actually first saw this film not long ago at all, and I have to say it immediately became my favorite film ever. (Not that I’m a big movie watcher.) I have the feeling that I could watch this movie ten, twenty, thirty more times and gain more from it every time. You’ve definitely made me want to go for viewing number two quite soon.

    1. L says:

      thanks… it is a truly beautifully done film, a phenomenally told fairy tale. I like the complexities that make every viewing a new and enjoyable experience–no matter how much del Toro is able to scare me every time.

  6. Kailana says:

    I really liked this movie, but it has been a really long time since I have seen it. I must watch it again to refresh my memory!

    1. L says:

      it is good seasonal fare.. hope you are able to enjoy it again soon.

  7. Shellie says:

    Back again…

    I loved this movie. One of my all time favorites. I do also agree that regarding the other two movies are not quite as good but they are both wonderful. And yes do not put the dubbing on… read the subtitles. 🙂

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