Guillermo del Toro was born, raised, and film-schooled in Guadalajara. But the two Spanish-language films he made before staying in the Hollywood mainstream—where he's been splashing around with big-budget money (or thrashing around with failed or stalled projects) ever since—looked back to Mexico's colonizer. The second, Pan's Labyrinth (2006), remains his most acclaimed and respected work, a kind of Euro-art-film horror fairy-tale. But it's not quite the grotesque, macabre fantasy-masterpiece that some have made it out to be.
The story's woven around the legend of a dead princess, Moanna, who seems to have returned in 1944 (post-Civil War) Spain in the form of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). She comes to a country estate with her recently widowed mother (Ariadna Gil), now remarried to a Nationalist captain (Sergi López) eager to root out the republicans still hiding in the hills. The housekeeper (Maribel Verdú) and doctor (Álex Angulo), though, are clandestinely helping those guerrillas. Family façades, fatherly love and blood-bonds seep out inkily from the shadows. Ofelia's magical-world meetings or three tasks, from the forest goat-god in an underworld lair to her slaying of a huge toad within a dying fig tree and escape from a palm-seeing ghoul at a banquet table, still spook and enthrall.
But there's a drawn-out-ness to the plot (the housekeeper and doctor's secret is over-elaborated, for instance) that extends to the time-period being overdrawn. Captain Vidal's such an overstated fatherland (he has daddy issues) fascist: the scowl or sneer, the leather gloves pulled off one finger at a time, the squeaking and polished boots, his brutal murder of two farmers (the violence here can be indulgently explicit), his ominous flicking-open of a straight razor. He seems more unreal, like the evil step-parent of a fairy-tale, than the fairies and fauns around Ofelia. The political history he anchors becomes morbid melodrama; Franco's Spain is too like a fable, a distant, far-off, not-quite-real place. And so the power of the fantasy-plot as an echo of a horrible, all-too-true reality is diminished. In Pan's Labyrinth, unlike in the best grim (and Grimm) fantasies, only the dream-land chills and thrills; the nightmare-truths of our world remain safely distant.
Fri, Sep 27 (11:15 pm); Sat, Oct 5 (2 pm)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 2006