Relishing the Horrors of Childhood

Maui Time | January 6, 2007
Guillermo del Toro Relishes the Horrors of Childhood

Pan's Labyrinth (Four Stars)

By Cole Smithey (648 words)

In discussing the leftist political themes of his films “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” gothic horror maestro Guillermo del Toro responds by condemning what is considered “normal” because, “normal creates inadequacy immediately.” The transplanted director from Mexico embraces abnormality and moral ambiguity in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a film he wrote and directed as a deeply personal treatise on the defense mechanisms of a child dealing with war and death. It is a surreal and dark fairytale about resistance and sacrifice from the point of view of a resourceful young child.

Ofelia (played with immeasurable grace by Ivana Baquero) is uprooted with her ailing pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) during Franco's 1944 postwar Spain to go live with Ofelia’s stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) of Spain’s Civil Guard. Mother and daughter arrive at an abandoned rural mill that Vidal has converted into a military headquarters to oppose the local “maquis” freedom fighters. Ofelia momentarily escapes the farm’s oppressive ambience while exploring an old garden labyrinth where she meets a peculiar faun (Doug Jones) who takes over as mentor and assigns Ofelia three tasks to prove her royalty as a princess. Ofelia's dark fantasies of fairies and monsters are matched by the savage hostilities incited by Captain Vidal’s obsessive reign of power. The once hideous but friendly faun gradually becomes beautiful as Ofelia fulfills his commands of obtaining a key from a repulsive toad, visiting a pale monster with eyeballs in the palms of his hands at a banquet from which she must not eat, and releasing the blood of an innocent.

In Cannes, after the film’s premiere del Toro said, “In this movie, I think the fascist is more terrifying than any of the creatures Ofelia encounters in her fantasy. I feel that the more humanist point of view is the one that I like. I love “Beauty and the Beast” by Jean Cocteau. I love “Frankenstein” by James Whale. I like “Night of the Hunter.”

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is set at the end of World War II when the Spanish resistance still had a fighting chance against Franco’s regime if allied support arrived. The movie works intriguingly opposite Steven Soderbergh’s currently running “The Good German” as a phasmagorical reflection of an underground reality seething beneath the scorched and bloody soldier-inhabited earth above.

Guillermo del Toro is a bold creator of modern fairytales in the tradition of the Grimm brothers mixed with a healthy spice of Greek mythology. In planning his films, the director draws colorful and exact drawings of the creatures he will bring to life, such as the mandrake root that Ofelia places in a bowl of milk and water beneath her mother’s bed to cure her sickness and to protect her unborn child. As del Toro points out, “There is a mythology that you can grow a baby out of a mandrake.” Mandrake is another name for ginseng, but del Toro proposes that the plant was traditionally born under the gallows at the feet of hanging victims that spasamed as they died. “You had to look for it under a full moon with a black dog, and wear protection on your ears because when the dog digs for it, the mandrake screams and the dog dies. And if you don’t have protection, you die.” The childhood desperation that permeates his dramatic sensibility is elevated by del Toro’s sincere devotion to imaginary belief systems rooted in cycles of nature.

Del Toro says, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is an adult movie about being a kid. “My favorite kid movies are “The 400 Blows,” or “Au revoir, les enfants” by Louis Malle or “The Tin Drum.” None of these are movies that I would play along with “Chicken Little” for my daughters, but they are movies, nevertheless, about childhood.”

Rated R. 120 mins. (A-)


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