Once Upon a Time
Here’s a fun fact. In the 2010’s five of the ten Best Director Oscars went to three people: Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro. Now this in and of itself isn’t that crazy (though Iñárritu winning back-to-back is pretty remarkable all things considered), the pattern of release from notable directors sometimes coincides with the taste and preferences of the Academy well enough for a string of wins. What makes these three men remarkable is that, well, they are all Mexican directors who are friends, and have thus garnered the cheeky label, “The Three Amigos of Cinema.”
Now big name directors being chummy isn’t a new phenomena, after all the whole Film Brat generation is practically built around this concept, but the linking of these three directors into a group of major auteurs is built around an interesting and fascinating moment of there careers. For in 2006 each one released a movie, each movie was received with critical acclaim, and each movie helped lodge them as preeminent filmmakers in the world of international cinema. It’s not that success had eluded them before (notably both Cuaron and del Toro had major franchise films in the bag already), but that the triptych of movies exacting refinements of their unique aesthetics that spoke to the current moment. Each in a different genre, each in a different time period, and each trying to make sense of the world. It’s great serendipity that such a confluence of factors come together to create a neat little trilogy of movies to cover.
Which brings us to this week’s film: Pan’s Labyrinth. A movie that has had the interesting trajectory of being well received the moment of its release, and over the course of time firmly etched itself as a best of the decade contender. A film that serves as the crux of del Toro’s career, affirming his fixations on the power of storytelling, fantasy, and myth in the face of brutality, fear, and repression. Right now Pan’s Labyrinth stands at the exact center of del Toro’s filmography and stands proudly as a metonym for his work as whole. All the thematic heft, aesthetic ambition, and filmmaking technique are wrapped up into a singularly entrancing package.
In the depths of the second World War we find ourselves presented with the tale of a lost princess, who escaped from her underground kingdom only to wither and die in the world of man. Such a yarn might be something that young Ofelia (Ivana Baqeuro) reads in her books. Alas she is not looking forward to anything so fanciful as her heavily pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is being sequestered away to a fascist retreat in the mountains at the behest of new husband Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Vidal wants to be with his new wife as his son is born, and finish snuffing out the remaining guerrilla fighters hiding out in the surrounding woods.
Concurrently Ofelia discovers a fantastic secret. A magical Faun (Doug Jones) who tells her that she is indeed the princess of the magical kingdom, and must complete three tasks to return. Thus we weave between the world of fantasy and reality as Ofelia tries to complete her quest and navigate the heightening conflict between Vidal, the rebels, and her family.
There are a vocal contingent of viewers who readily dismiss del Toro’s work as that of talented painter working in obviousness and forced whimsy. A man so enamored with his ability to evoke a world that he rarely has anything to say beyond the striking image here and there. I feel that Pan’s Labyrinth serves as fairly well articulated retort to that complaint, for while it indulges in many obvious metaphorical connections, it itself is a rich text with many possible realms of analysis and thematic interest.
To wit it is clear the lines del Toro draws between the realm of the fantastic and world of reality. The increasingly dangerous tasks that Ofelia is asked to accomplish correspond well with the increased danger present at home. And the metaphors that the tasks represent in the face of Fascist power aren’t hidden either. The Toad stifling the tree moving into Vidal controlling the food, the giant dinner table of the Pale Man mirroring the feast that the group of fascists have, it’s not trying to be subtle in this regard.
If these surface connections were the fullest extent of the film’s preoccupations, then concern would be warranted, but one of the reasons Pan’s Labyrinth has ascended to such a high level of esteem is because it’s a dense piece of work. A movie of broad strokes, and subtle details. One that uses every element of the filmmaking toolkit to explore the conceptual framework it presents.
More than anything Pan’s Labyrinth is a story about storytelling. How narratives shape our lives and inform our actions in the world. Indeed the fairytale conceit that the movies takes place in harkens to this very idea. What is a fairytale if not principles for a young child to live by. Don’t go into the woods at night, don’t talk to wolves, and a variety of other well-worn chestnuts. Ofelia is the said child that navigates the world by storytelling logic, pulling quests from a magic book or creature to try and accomplish.
But she isn’t the only one. Pan’s Labyrinth, despite the cloak of dark fantasy, is primarily a war movie. A picture concerning itself with the status of officers and rebels in the thick of global conflict, and war is a field ripe for narrative possibilities. Indeed Vidal is haunted by the story of his father, a General who broke his watch when he died on the battlefield to remind his son of the moment of his demise. It’s a story to galvanize, to turn a man into a myth beyond human recognition. Such a story ends up becoming Vidal’s undoing. So hard does he try to conform to the structures of the good Fascist warrior that he shatters under the pressure, slowly being cut and killed by the forces he seeks to tamp down.
This too is reflected by the rebels, both with the revolutionary housekeeper Mercedes, and the compassionate doctor. Both conduct themselves in the framework of dangerous dissidents working for the greater good. They know they outmatched and outgunned, but work to the end to try and subvert the power that Vidal has over the region. The doctor waivers on such tropes, and winds up shot, Mercedes stands to her convictions and gets the final say of the story for it. Del Toro has a sentimental streak after all, and he gives the rebels a win, even if it is a pyrrhic one in the face of history.
All of this still winds around Ofelia. A child who simply is trying to make sense of the world she has found herself in. The struggle of comprehending the violence and terror the seeps through every aspect of her life. The fantastic has an out, but it’s not enough to hide that death is an uninterruptible force in both the real and the imagined. That the final task is that of a sacrifice highlights this. Yes her death can be read as a transition to the world of fantastic, but it is still a death, a transformation, and a realization that this is the only way this story can end. Happily ever after always comes with a price.
Del Toro realizes all this through a luxuriant and considered aesthetic. Beyond all the obvious and ebullient levels of production design, del Toro masters a technique of the camera to create the feel of watching a story unfold across a large tapestry or mosaic. The camera glides and floats through the scenery, gently coaxing characters and events across the screen. Sequences are edited together through constant movement with transitions connected with movement through objects and spaces, creating the feel continuous and unending momentum. That the story of the fantastic can just be discovered at the edges of the world. That the corners can be scratched at and uncovered.
Thus del Toro quite literally weaves the story he has to tell together through his images and his themes. Constructing a tale of tales that tries to untangle the nonsensical and frightening world of constant war and terror from the state. It’s not surprising that this film in its time of release resonated. A society consumed by war and violence couldn’t parse what we were seeing, and tried our best to make sense of the images of reality, sometimes through the fantastic and imagined. It’s to del Toro’s achievement that such a story is both timely, timeless, and everlasting in its structure.
Odds and Ends
- At the Academy Awards Pan’s Labyrinth did fairly well despite the bias against genre fair that has plagued the Oscars, nabbing Makeup, Art Direction, and Cinematography awards. Unfortunately it lost Foreign Language film to The Lives of Others, a case where a pretty good movie wins the gold in the face of a masterpiece and looks slightly worse for it.
- Though it is arguable that del Toro’s wins for The Shape of Water are quasi make up awards for this decision.
- One great thing about the movie is that the tasks are kind of unexplained beyond the simple premise presented. The Toad and the Pale Man have contextual information peppered around them, but are mostly left for the viewer to infer their history and purpose.
- Another point that raises interesting thematic implications without being overplayed is Ofelia sharing the name of Hamlet’s doomed lover. Yes they both die, but other connections remain up for interpretation.
- A question that film purposefully obfuscates is if the fantastic stuff is really real, or merely within Ofelia’s imagination. Like many similar stories it doesn’t really matter as the thematic point is the characters make the choices they make for the reasons presented, but two moments of note. How does Ofelia escape her locked room, and why doesn’t Vidal see the Faun.
- Del Toro is the king of unrealized projects, so much so that he has a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to it, but it feels like the clout and prestige from this movie lead to most of the films he scoped out but ultimately didn’t make, things are on a pretty steady pace for him ever since Pacific Rim was released.
Next Week: Our second amigo, Iñárritu, explores the horrors of an interconnected world with the depressive epic Babel.