Thursday, January 18, 2007
When fascism is the rule of the land, the only choices for its citizens are submission or covert resistance. For a child—a being who, by definition, is powerless and whose socialization requires some amount of repression of the id’s impulses—it is even more complicated. One additional response to repression for children (and the childlike) is a retreat into the imagination (the final bastion that the barbarians at the gate are unable to broach). Bruno Bettelheim understood this well in his studies about the functions of fairy tales and enchantment in the minds of children trying to negotiate the complicated world of adults. Another who understands this process is Guillermo del Toro, whose sensitivity toward children’s plight was apparent in 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone.
With Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro finds his fullest expression of these concerns and combines this melodrama of the psyche with the phantasmagoria of his own imagination to create the most original film of 2006. Set in Spain in 1944 during the waning moments of the country’s brutal civil war, Pan’s Labyrinth taps into this world of jackbooted repression and flights of fancy.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a young girl who moves with her very pregnant mother, Carmén (Ariadna Gil), to the outpost of her new stepfather (Sergi López), who is a military captain in Franco’s newly victorious fascist enterprise. Pockets of resistance fighters still occupy these mountainous areas in the north, but the captain is a harsh man who unflinchingly eradicates all who oppose him.
Ofelia escapes his domination by retreating to the surrounding woods, where she encounters a whole world of fauns, dragonflies, and other creatures that believe her to be their lost princess. She is given tasks to perform to prove she’s the real deal, and the conflicts Ofelia faces are no less frightening to the child’s mind than the captain’s vicious assaults are against his enemies. These creatures of the underworld are the fervid fabrications of del Toro’s imagination: More than once they will catch you by surprise and make you gasp—but so will some of the actions of the captain.
The story’s fairy tale aspects hew toward the dark disquiet these tales underscored in the decades before their Disneyfication took hold. There are no happily-ever-afters here despite the exquisite beauty inherent in the face of the young actress Baquero.
Pan’s Labyrinth catapults del Toro to the top ranks of international filmmakers. His fertile imagination appears to have no limit, and all his previous work is hopefully a mere warm-up for a fecund future.
PAN’S LABYRINTH ( * * * * )
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. • Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ariadna Gil, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo, Roger Casamajor and César Vea. • R, 112 min. • At Maya Cinemas, Osio Cinemas.