Friday, December 29, 2006

El Laberinto del Fauno / (Pan's Labyrinth) - Movie Review

El Laberinto del Fauno 2006

Closing out this year of the Mexican Auteur Invasion, (relax people, we’re speaking of three talented filmmakers, not your new neighbors) comes Guillermo del Toro’sEl Laberinto del Fauno”. This fantastical period piece which miraculously manages to weave a complex tale of a young girl’s vivid imagination calling forth mythological beings and the Spanish Civil War and Spain’s lasting battle with fascist forces is a wonder to behold for many reasons. Chief among them, the directorial flair of del Toro and the charming central performance by the young Ivana Baquero.

Guillermo del Toro has been on our short list of favorite directors for a few years now, and hardly anybody outside of Fanboy / Sci-fi geeks recognizes his name. For since his breakthrough film in 1993, “Cronos” won attention at the Cannes Film Festival and helped bring him to Hollywood, he has dealt almost exclusively within the Fantasy and Horror genres of moviemaking. Now, unfortunately for most of us, the Fantasy and Horror genres are typically stacked with prepubescent psycho serial killer storylines and more blood and guts than any human being should be forced to watch.

Thankfully, Señor del Toro is a real honest to dios talent that has the skill and storytelling abilities to avoid the clichés of chainsaw wielding zombies and is able to focus equally on character, story, mood and atmosphere. Despite an unfortunate early foray into Hollywood Horrorland with the 1997 giant-cockroach-stalking-the-subways flick, “Mimic”, del Toro has managed to carve out a solid niche of richly detailed fantasy films that entertain, entice and yes, raise the hackles on the back of your neck.

There are some wonderful scenes in “Mimic” that first caught our attention to the skill behind the camera. When he followed that almost hit with our favorite film of 2001, “El Espinazo del Diablo” we knew we were witnessing the cinematic birth of a true talent. That film also dealt with the Spanish Civil War and a child’s eye view of the phantasmagorical, but with a bent towards the ghostly rather than the mythological of his current film.

Two forays into the Comic Fanboy genre, “Blade II” and “Hellboy” proved conclusively that del Toro was that rare breed. A genre flick auteur. Go ahead, snicker if you will at the thought of a sequel to a vampire killer flick and a demon spawn wisecracking superhero possibly being the subjects of interesting well crafted films, but you would be wrong. When will you learn to trust us? Shame.

El Laberinto del Fauno” is wonderful for many reasons. First and foremost is the visual beauty of the film. Del Toro has always brought the perfect textual feel to his films, carefully constructing sets and using evocative locations to capture a sense of wonder and otherworldliness. In this, he is greatly aided by his excellent production team, costume designers Lala Huete and Rocio Redondo and the extraordinarily gifted cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. This film feels and looks like no other flick this year, and it is a sight to behold.

Secondly, del Toro does not ignore characterization in the pursuit of entertainment or thrills. This finely crafted tale of a young girl obsessed with fairy tales relies heavily on the skill and honesty of the young Ivana Baquero who beautifully captures that indefinable ability to believe in the magical that only children truly possess. For this film to work, we must trust the character of Ofelia and her belief in fairies, fauns and demons. Thankfully, with Ivana Baquero, del Toro has found the perfect young actress. Bravo to both of them!

As the young Ofelia, Ivana’s character is brought to the Spanish countryside during the Civil War by her very pregnant mother Carmen to live under the care of her new husband, one Capitán Vidal whose ability to inflict harm on every conceivable level is unknown to either of them. His base camp is run with a taut leather glove clad fist, sequestered amidst the forested hills filled with Spanish rebels bravely attempting to maintain their ground.

The camp is overseen by the level headed gaze of Mercedes, outwardly the dutiful servant who hides a few surprises herself. Under her watchful stare, young Ofelia attempts to avoid the wrath of her stepfather by escaping into her various books filled with fantasy. A fantasy that becomes reality when she stumbles upon Pan’s Labyrinth. Yes, that Pan. A fantastical amalgam of actor, Doug Jones and a very polished CGI drawn magic. Not since, Gollum or Kong trod across Peter Jackson’s own mythological landscapes, has there been such a wonderfully convincing creation.

Pan informs Ofelia that she is not of this world – that she is in reality a princess waiting for her calling home to a kingdom filled with her greatest desires fulfilled. But of course, there is a catch. She must perform three assigned tasks in order to reclaim her crown. We don’t wish to spoil the details of the tasks, since they form the backbone of this richly macabre and fantastically realistic drama.

Guillermo del Toro is to be commended for managing to balance the real life drama of the Spanish Civil War and it’s great injustices mirrored in the human drama playing out around the expected birth of Ofelia’s little brother. The fantastical elements of Ofelia’s night wanderings through a land filled with mythological beasts, demons and monsters is played so straight faced and filled with a true sense of wonder, that it is almost a miracle they fit so well together in the same film.

The cast is more than up to the challenge, delivering terrific performances throughout. Ivana Baquero is never cloying or preternaturally unbelievable as so many child actors seem to be portrayed. She is alive with wonder and awe at her mysterious journey, while managing to be honest to the character’s intrinsically quiet nature. We believe this child looks for an escape from her war-torn surroundings, to escape into the world of fairies as her only solace. When she must learn to overcome her greatest fears, they challenges faced and the emotional surrendering are wonderfully played.

Maribel Verdú as Mercedes, the servant with a few secrets of her own delivers the other stand out performance. We were shocked to realize halfway through the film that this was the same actress who was so engaging as the older woman sandwiched between two very horny young pranksters in Alfonso Cuarón’s delightful “Y tu mamá también”! Here, her sex appeal is drastically dialed down and a mask of courage and strength brought to the forefront. This was in many ways the most difficult role in the piece. A mix of stalwart bravery, acquiescent servitude and undiscovered trickster.

All of which encapsulates the charms and wonder of this breathtaking movie. Guillermo del Toro is officially the great fabulist of our time. Possessing the steady visual control of a Hitchcock, the ability to paint fantastical visions like a young unspoiled Spielberg coupled with the twisted panache of Buñuel. Do yourselves a favor, and dare to enter “Pan’s Labyrinth”. You’ll be glad you did. Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
Ariadna Gil as Carmen
Sergi López as Capitán Vidal
Maribel Verdú as Mercedes
Doug Jones as Pan
Alex Angulo as Dr. Ferreiro
Manolo Solo as Garcés
Roger Casamajor as Pedro
Ivan Massagué as El Tarta

Cinematography by Guillermo Navarro
Film Editing by Bernat Vilaplana
Original Music by Javier Navarrete
Production Design by Eugenio Caballero
Costume Design by Lala Huete & Rocío Redondo
Makeup by José Quetglás and Arjen Tuiten



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