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Movie Review: Pan's Labyrinth

by mattjosh (writer), Albuquerque, January 10, 2007

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Going into this movie, I had no idea how much of the director's work I had already seen. His name is Guillermo del Toro and, in his relatively sparse career, he has made several notable films including Mimic, The Devil's Backbone, Blade II, and Hellboy. Clearly, "notable" does not always mean "good," but such a memorable CV is impressive nonetheless. In fact, those are the only films he has made in the past 10 years and I'm willing to bet you've all heard of at least three of them. Not a bad feat for a foreign-born-and-raised director who was virtually unknown before then.

Whether or not you've seen the above movies, a cursory glance at the titles may give you the sense that del Toro makes movies concerning the darker side of the street. He has repeatedly confessed his fascination with monsters in particular, but also with insects and dark places. While all of those fantastical motifs are central to Pan's Labyrinth, the film's appeal resides equally in its representation of politics and social strife in civil war era Spain in 1944, during the early days of Franco's regime.

The film opens in classical fairytale fashion. A richly voiced narrator explains that the princess of the underworld yearned so badly to live above ground that finally she ran away to do just that. Tragically, the young girl was not quite acclimated to the intensity of natural light, and upon first seeing the sun she instantly lost both her vision as well as her memory. Lonely and helpless, she soon died, as one is apt to do when living amongst mortals. Her father, the king, knew that someday her soul would return to him, in whatever form, and resolved to wait for that day.

The next scene shows a young girl, Ofelia, reading a book, while her mom looks on, asking her why she, a growing girl, continues to fill her head with such nonsense as fairy tales. Besides foreshadowing the end of the movie, which I will not give away, but only tease you with, this establishes the central theme of the movie: the conflict between fantasy and reality.

The reality within which the plot resides is filled with violence, pain, and the kind of sadistic cruelty one expects to find in a horror film sooner than a fantasy story. But Latin America has always been wonderfully shameless about mixing fantasy with reality - ever read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Pan's Labyrinth similarly demolishes traditional notions of genres, as much a socio-political wartime drama as it is a fairy tale.

But then, Ofelia's fantasy experiences, the reality of which the viewer can determine for his or her self, are by no means the opposite of a cruel reality. One encounter finds her crawling through the cockroach-infested muck in the roots of a dying tree looking to eradicate a giant toad, while another has her trying to escape the lair of a pale-skinned, child-devouring monster. The difference lies in Ofelia's hope for a happy ending in the fantasy world, something that real life has long since sapped from her.

You can see for yourself if these hopes are fulfilled...

The acting was superb across the board, without awkwardness or celebrity pre-association to hinder my enjoyment. It was incredibly refreshing to see a movie in which not a single face had been stolen from the cover of a tabloid. Of course, I speak from a regrettably Hollywood purview, and thus have no idea whether or not these actors are actually the finest and most famous in all of Spain. Still, it suits me just fine to go on thinking of them as wonderful nobodies.

Pan's Labyrinth will delight you visually, defy your expectations, and disrupt you emotionally - for better or for worse. However, I do recommend you arrive early for your show. I did not, and ended up close enough to the screen for the subtitles to reach out and tweak my neck.


About the Writer

mattjosh is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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4 comments on Movie Review: Pan's Labyrinth

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By V on January 10, 2007 at 02:31 pm
Wow, I really want to see this. And you're right about the Gabriel Garcia Marqez (one of my most very, very favorite authors) remark. I adore how particularly Latin American cultures, in their story telling, traverse reality and fantasy. It's why I love their literature so much. But this is Spain and civil war time ... interesting. Thanks for the review. Soft spot for little girls called Ofelia too. It was the name of my little ferret.
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By Ariel on January 10, 2007 at 05:02 pm
I don't think I've seen any of his movies but this one does look interesting. Too many movies to see lately!
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By Alethea on January 13, 2007 at 02:38 am
I loved this movie!
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By pleasurepalate on January 19, 2007 at 02:34 am
I actually saw this movie this past weekend and completely loved it. :) It absorbed me from beginning to end.
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