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January 18, 2007

A fantasy flick for people who hate fantasy: Pan's Labyrinth - Guillermo del Toro

Posted by Richard D. North

Pan's Labyrinth (Laberinto del Fauno)
Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro
certificate 15, 2006

If you're a fan of Mark (one might say "The Curmudgeon") Kermode, then you won't need my endorsement of this fable. He has quite famously made it his movie of 2006, and says it's the Citizen Kane of fantasy movies. So he likes it, then. The more I hear him and the film's director, Guillermo del Toro, talk about the enterprise, the more I realise it's not something I am naturally in tune with.

Del Toro says that this is an anarchist fable, by which he is explicit in saying that it is against "The System". So I start to bridle. There is very little that makes me warm to a brutal, dim-witted fascist - and such a figure, Captain Vidal, is pivotal to the story - but a brutal, dim-witted portrayal by right-ons will get me having a go. Film-makers who dabble in imaginary dimensions might heed the couple right in front of them. Fabulist, indeed. This is a film in which all women are heroines, so there's another mark against it.

And yet it is quite possibly going to be a classic.

The film concerns a young girl whose widowed working class mother has married an affluent captain in Franco's fascist army. It's 1944, and his womenfolk join him in an unpromising mountain mill which has been commandeered as a base camp for his anti-guerrilla operations. His new step-daughter is wired to the moon: Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is off with the fairies. In this case, too much reading has put her in touch with an underworld (literally, it's a subterranean one) of fauns and mega toads. And here we suddenly find ourselves in splendid territory. We completely believe that Ofelia is an imp of some kind who has been sent up to earth to test her goblin morality against the human world. What a lovely reversal of the normal fantasy game.

There are plenty of moments when it helps to be a fan of Dr Who: scaly, gloopy creatures lurch and lunch, and I can take that stuff or leave it. However, the faun who gives Ofelia her instructions is an enjoyable creature: he reminded me a lot of Russell Brand, and that cheered me up. Camp, sinister, and a wayward disciplinarian. What's more, the general aesthetic of the underworld was satisfyingly like the world created by Jean Cocteau in his La Belle et La Bęte (why isn't the beast masculine?): authentically creaky and monochrome.

The human world del Toro creates may be a bit one-sided, but by god it's terrifying. The nastiness and violence is, well, Spanish. So one certainly accepts that Ofelia, and her peasant mentor, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), are extraordinarily brave in trying to do good and in taking on Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Even when he's busy sewing up his own face after a knife attack, one wouldn't want to mess with him, and Lopéz is properly understated in bringing us a man of narrow horizons and limitless disdain. His role is overdrawn, but not his performance. Anyway, he is at least allowed toughness. Like Saddam Hussein at his execution, Vidal demonstrates that courage is not reserved to the good.

Inevitably, one looks for moral messages. I suppose the film is saying that the underworld is rather a decent place compared with the human. But it probably also wants us to believe that the guerrillas - men of the woods, living outside the maw of the state - are the nearest humans can come to underworld virtue. Certainly both the guerrillas and the underworld Ofelia - and the above ground world Ofelia - believe in preserving life, and they prove it by insisting that the captain's newborn girl-child matters even though her father is a monster and has in effect killed his wife and would cheerfully have killed Ofelia to preserve his blood line. He is quite looking forward to taking the pliers to Mercedes when she eludes him. Anyway, by the end of the movie, he's dead and the baby is taken off to the woods to be looked after by the guerrillas' women. Ofelia - who always was an underground princess-in-waiting - is confirmed as having passed her earthly trials and can take up her sepulchral realm.

This is a tough little tale, and satisfying. It's a fantasy flick for people who don't like them.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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