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Pan’s Labyrinth

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth
A few years ago, when he made his wonderful film The Devil's Backbone, Guillermo del Toro told me that he liked to alternate between directing commercial Hollywood studio films, and a film that he then made strictly for himself. Del Toro, who made Cronos and now Pan's Labyrinth, also directed Blade II, Hellboy and Hellboy 2:the Army. Few filmmakers who have the illusion about being able to keep their feet planted in both the commercial and the personal camp succeed. The Mexican-born Del Toro is a rare exception.

Like Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth is a Mexican-Spanish production, is set in Spain, and takes place during the era of the Spanish Civil War. The protagonist is Ofelia, a little girl, whose mother, a widow, has married a captain of the Guardia Civil.

Ofelia lives the life of an 11-year-old girl: she loves stories about fairies and princesses and fully accepts the world of magic. That world opens up to her when Ofelia and her mother join their fascist father at a remote mill where the stepfather and Franco's army are chasing the Republican terrorists.

Captain Vidal may be elegant, but also hardened macho. He treats Ofelia's mother as chattel. She is valuable to him and he dotes on her only because she is now pregnant with his child. What he seems to enjoy the most is torturing captured resistance fighters.

Mercedes, the housekeeper, wonderfully played by Maribel Verdu, is in league with the resistance fighters and in some ways represents the “soul” of the humanitarian Spain which was defeated by Franco during the Civil War.

The second, large element in the film is fantasy. It is this world which Ofelia, who believes in fairies and all the things she has read in her books, enters. The world is filled with strange creatures – a giant toad, a huge insect which looks like a mantis and is airborne. It could be a very scary place, but Ofelia takes to it naturally.
Her guide is a faun who has the head of a goat and who believes that Ofelia is the reincarnation of a dead princess. To prove that she is, indeed, the lost princess, Ofelia is given a series of challenges.

I liked PAN'S LABYRINTH when I first saw it in May toward the end of the Cannes Film Festival. Most other people liked the film, though no one thought it was particularly exceptional. It is wonderfully acted and shot, but rather traditional in its conception. A half year and a different continent make a world of difference, and PAN'S LABYRINTH has been rapturously received in the U.S., winning numerous awards, including the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Picture.

The film is obviously hitting a resonant chord in the American public. I think the critical and audience success of PAN'S LABYRINTH is a revealing gauge of the emotional state of the nation. The politics of PAN'S LABYRINTH are rather simple – it's easy to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys and we clearly know whose side del Toro is on. When the partisan fighters are trapped by the Fascists toward the end of the film, redemption for Ofelia lies in the fantasy world to which she escapes.

In a fairy tale, goodness can still triumph over evil because one believes in the power of magic. It is this naïve and beautiful acceptance of the power of goodness to triumph which audiences seem to respond to so viscerally. This is something new – I think audiences feel emotionally beat up by the brutality of violent films like the recent fantasies of Mel Gibson, and by living in the real world through a half dozen years of lies, betrayal and bloodshed. Ofelia – in an amazing performance by the 11-year old Ivana Baquero – redeems us by giving us hope that somewhere, somehow, perhaps in another dimension, innocence can prevail.

In both DEVIL'S BACKBONE and PAN'S LABYRINTH, Guillermo del Toro displays a truly remarkable capacity for representing this innocence. It comes across as a priceless gift.

This is Milos Stehlik for Chicago Public Radio's Worldview.

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