Published Jan 7, 2007

Last night, I saw Pan’s Labyrinth with a friend. If you’ve caught the trailer, you may have gotten the impression that this movie is some sort of a magical story of another world. That is slightly correct, but in a very European, Terry Gilliam kind of way. Much of the story takes place in the real world, is violent (exceedingly, at times), and dark; the fantastical world is revealed only in a few short scenes. They promise “a journey that will make you believe,” but half the point is — can you believe? Is it really true?

This is not to say that Pan’s Labyrinth is a bad movie. Far from it — it’s visually compelling, if busy, very well-acted, and engaging. But, at least for US audiences, director Guillermo del Toro’s1 work is packaged as a charming adult fairy tale, appropriate, despite its R rating, for the mature 10- or 12-year-old. It’s not. There are shootings, stabbings, and a very graphic scene in which a man’s cheek is slit open. The violence is not inappropriate, but it is all part of an exceedingly depressing atmosphere, filled with people who are hard-edged and casually dismissive of others.

The story is simple on its surface, but more complex at its depths. A girl and her mother travel from Madrid to the rural north of Spain in 1944. The mother has married, and is carrying the child of, an army Captian stationed in an old hacienda there, sweeping the area with his cavalry patrols to hunt down insurgent forces left over from the Civil War.1 The girl is a city girl and loves reading her fairy tales, and hates the country — just as much as her new stepfather despises her and even her mother. Outside the hacienda, there’s an ancient labyrinth. In this labyrinth, the girl meets fairies and a faun, who tells her that she is the reincarnation of an ancient princess of the underworld. As the princess, she can re-enter the underworld and claim her throne if she completes three tasks before the full moon. The movie tracks her progress on the tasks at the same time that it shows the oppressive context of the civil conflict.

The fantasy world is visually rich but light in content. Far from the complex story of a Lord of the Rings, Pan’s Labyrinth gives us interesting but hollow vignettes. Even the underworld, of which our heroine is, theoretically, the Princess, is barely seen — in fact, virtually every shot of said underworld is in the trailer. There’s a great, eyeless monster who eats babies, from whom she must steal a knife; why this monster, why this knife?

Whys are more obvious in the real world. There’s no need to define the mythology of the Spanish Civil War; everything is based on reality. Del Toro does a great job establishing most of the major characters, and we can understand why the Captain is hard and violent, why Carmen, the chief servant, is a spy, why the doctor has certain sympathies, even why our heroine’s mother has married the Captain — or at least we can if we understand the political context of the movie. It’s a little black-and-white, with all the Nationalists evil, all the Republicans caring and righteous… but then, by and large, history sees the Nationalists as bad, bad people. The real world has the strongest story and characters in Pan’s Labyrinth.

When things in the real world come to a climax, it effects the events of the underworld in an unexpected but realistic and compelling way, and the last ten minutes minutes of the movie are perhaps its best. There we see the hope and promise of the underworld — the hope and promise of fantasy in a time of evil — the archetypes of the real world in violent conflict, a conflict about whose conclusion we care deeply, and the big question: is the fantasy real, or is it just a dream?

Both in the real and fantasy worlds, Del Toro is obsessed with the sounds made by uniforms. The Faun clicks as he moves, bugs and fairies clack and buzz as they fly, and, most of all, the leather on the Nationalists’ uniforms creaks with every movement. It’s as if the had lav mikes hooked up to every belt, holster, boot, and bandolier. The overall sound is not unpleasant, but it is decidedly unexpected.

In the end, whatever its weaknesses, Pan’s Labyrinth is executed at such a high level that it’s impossible to dislike. Acting is very strong, the dialogue is filled with special details, the visuals are exacting and, sometimes, gorgeous, and, most of all, we all care about what’s going on. The movie even ends well; not all of the loose ends are tied up, but the ones that need to be are, and the open ones just add to the feeling of fantasy.

A Few Notes on Subtitles and Translation

Translation is important to any foreign movie, of course; in this case, my Spanish is good enough that I could follow the conversation and read the subtitles, noting the difference. I don’t know who did the translation for this movie, although it’s possible that Del Toro, who wrote and directed it, did — his English is good enough. That doesn’t explain why a movie whose name, in Spanish, is “The Faun’s Labyrinth,” and which has no character named Pan, is titled “Pan’s Labyrinth” in English.3 There are issues with the subtitles, too. While they’re always accurate, they don’t show the careful word choice or poetic constructions that pervade the script. In addition, when speaking, the Faun uses thee/thou constructions in Spanish, but the subtitles use “you”. I suspect this causes a difference in the overall atmosphere. Still, there’s no such thing as a perfect translation, and the subtitles in Pan’s Labyrinth are just fine.

1 No relation to Benecio.

2 The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936-1939 and pitted the legitimate government of Spain — called Republicans — initially Social Democratic and later taken over by the Communists, against the Fascist forces of the Army — called Nationalists —- led by Gen. Francisco Franco. The Nazis and Italian Fascists supported the Nationalists, while the Soviets supported the Republicans. After victory became impossible for the Republicans in 1939, they surrendered, in order to minimize the killing; the Fascists responded by massacring tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of individual Republicans in the subsequent ten years. An insurgency carried on for most of that time, but the insurgents were either killed or fled to France.

3 Pan’s Labyrinth, however, sounds better.

1 Comment

I liked it. Solid B. Very impressed with del Toro’s direciton. But was disappointed on a number of levels. Spoilers maybe:

1) My expectations were too high, so it would have been difficult to exceed them.

2) That is partly because, indeed, they are marketing a totally different movie than the one I saw.

3) And that was one of the most significant flaws, imo — I think it needed to be balanced: half real world, half fantasy world. But really, we only got 2 fantasy vignettes. Needed at least 1 more, preferably 2. I wonder if budget constraints was an influence here.

4) Moreover, I was ACHING for a clever way to connect the two (parallel?) worlds. Never happened (to my satisfaction, at least).

Again, overall, I really enjoyed it, and think del Toro’s star is going to continue rising.