25 February 2007

black magic


movie review :: pan's labyrinth

i have mixed feelings about guillermo del toro. his films, while while soaked in atmosphere and in possession of an eerie, organic beauty, have a tendency to collapse somewhat short of the finish line. the first time i saw cronos, i was captivated for about the first two thirds of the movie, at which point things sort of came unraveled. it felt like the director felt he'd put in his time and packed it in a little early. even the much lauded and far superior the devil's backbone left me wanting at the end. and his involvement in projects like hellboy and mimic makes me wonder if he's not just trying to parlay a strong visual sense into a larger scale hollywood career.

however, because, for all it's flaws, i did find the devil's backbone quite enchanting and legitimately scary in places, i wanted to check out his newest opus, from the artistic side of his personality, pan's labyrinth. besides, i find the lure of a fairytale for adults done by a adirector with his cinematographic abilities to be irresistible.

first off, i would like to clear up what i mean by an adult fairytale. this is not a fairytale that adults can get into, while allowing their children to watch. this is a tale in the older tradition, before censors decided that children would be better off if they didn't hear all the gory details and just thought that they were listening to a pretty story. originally, fairy tales weren't meant to comfort, but to caution, and the caution given was generally dire. grim indeed.

potential viewer's expecting a cgi-laden princess bride would be well advised to stay home. the fantasy world of the film is not beautiful and peaceful, but troubled, unsettling, often disgusting. magic was generally the subject of suspicion in older times, because rather than being good or evil, those possessed of secret knowledge and power generally maintained a frustrating neutrality. so it is in the world of pan, actually the titular faun who appears to test the tellingly named ofelia, a child growing up in the aftermath of the spanish civil war whose mother has recently remarried to a fascist captain charged with rooting out the battered remains of the resistance from the country hills.

the magical characters, the faun and the faeries who are his assistants and his pets, are mysterious about their intentions. the people with whom ofelia interacts in the flesh and blood world, are not so cryptic. in particular, the captain, who ofelia steadfastly refuses to refer to as father, despite her mother's entreaties, is pure malevolence. many movies offer some explanation, some clue as to what motivates their villains, but not this one. he is an obsessively arrogant, cruel, violent man who manages to turn even his love for his newborn son into a perversion.

ofelia's friendless navigation between these two worlds becomes a little predictable, but the film does manage to grow beyond its limitations. while the promise of hope and beauty is held out, both by the faun and by the stealthy presence of the resistance fighters in the hills, but painfully withdrawn when it seems in reach.

what surprised me most about the film was the ending. at first glance, it may appear to be typical of del toro's anti-climatic climxes, but look again. without wanting to give away anything, after refecting on it a little, i think that the actual message being conveyed is considerably more complicated and more troubling than it seems. i suppose that's one of the things you have to watch about magic. nothing is as it appears.

2 comments:

J.Hamilton said...

There's an excellent Guardian interview with Del Toro which makes much clear about all his films, including the 'commercial' ones.

Part one is here:
http://film.guardian.co.uk/interview/interviewpages/0,,1955212,00.html

Part two is linked at the bottom.

'Pan's Labyrinth' was definitely one of the best films I've seen this year. Makes a nice companion piece, thematically, to Terry Gilliam's 'Tideland'.

Maximum Overlord said...

Personally, I really like Del Toro, because he loves to make movies and he's not an asshole about it. He's like the anti-James Cameron. He's a fanboy at heart and that makes him endearing to me.

For all of their flaws, the one thing you can say about his movies is the deep respect for the material. He may not be the genius that Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi are, but theres not pretension to grandeur that big blockbusters have, and to be honest, he's one of the best of the genre. They could have been a lot worse, they're not heavy on the CGI and rely more on the human relationship to the supernatural, than on some showy effect, big-name stars or over-the-top gore and violence.

The violence in Pan's Labyrinth is rather subdued; we are miles away from the ridiculous gorefest of Hostel or Saw. When violence is used, it is more to illustrate a point, as an object lesson, and nearly always by mortal men, not by women, nor by the supernatural creatures themselves (that is, discounting Hellboy and Mimic, the latest I haven't seen)

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