Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirty-Six

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#36 — Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
A persuasive argument can be made that all movies–all fiction movies, anyway–are individual testimonies to the wonders of the imagination. Ideas are given form and motion, emotions are conveyed in bold, almost tactile ways, and the impossible is routinely rendered for our startled amusement. When the right creator is behind the camera, there’s nothing that’s fully out of reach, no creature or landscape so unreal that it can’t be made as believable as the pavement on the street. This has long been the case, but movies now operate in an era in which keystrokes create digital wizardry. When the epic becomes easy, the more fanciful notions, those that strain most bravely and briskly against the limits of our expectations, are often left aside as stock miracle grind through projectors instead.

That’s not how it works for Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican writer-director brings his visions to the screen with an energy that’s conveyed not through rapid cuts and kinetic impact, but through their sheer vividness. He offers up his most rapturous dreams and scariest nightmares with equal conviction, perhaps because he can’t really discern a significant difference between the two extremes. The horrifying and beautiful intermingle, in the same scene, in the same image, in the same character or creature. In the process of making movies, he realizes worlds.

Pan’s Labyrinth is the richest, grandest example of this talent. It is a fairy tale with the grit intact. The shadows remain, and are indeed the primary allure. Set in Spain in 1944, in the early years of Francisco Franco’s brutal reign, the film follows a young girl who is living in sadness, largely due to the private totalitarianism practiced by her new stepfather. He is an office in Franco’s army, and del Toro uses him a troubling reflection of the country and government he serves. The girl, played with bright honesty by Ivana Baquero, makes temporary escapes from this existence through the only means at her disposal, excursions into the adventures of her own imagination. There she is a lost princess, a few simple tasks all that are required to liberate her and restore her to a land of immeasurable pleasure and peace. There are fairies and fauns to guide her, nasty monsters and overgrown amphibians to be avoided and overcome.

It is a sort of rebellion, matched by the one brewing in the nearby woods. The gifted Maribel Verdu plays the officer’s housekeeper, a woman who is also serving as a member of the brewing resistance. As they run afoul of the officer, played with stunning ferocity by Sergi Lopez, del Toro is unflinching in his depiction of the torturous violence that results. For all the storybook splendor on display, del Toro is clear that the real threats exist in the world outside these riddles and tests. The contrast is clear and starkly drawn, and serves to properly heighten the tension of the film. These escapes into fantasy aren’t the mere diversions of childhood. There is something more at stake. There is a sense that actual survival hangs in the balance.

And then there is the possibility that these aren’t simple fantasies, creative concoctions of a intelligent girl. After all, reality itself is negotiable in the movies. It is a place where magic actually can happen, and a story can be about things more wondrous that the world on our side of the screen allows. There is deliberate ambiguity built into the story, the hint, or maybe the kind, hopeful suggestion, that these wanderings down to a bustling underworld of untold dark spectacle. Our young heroine isn’t escaping into her imagination, she’s genuinely discovering her enchanted destiny. After all, everything we see is equally tangible. The mythical characters are as fully realized and carefully acted as those who are grounded in the documented stories that fill history books.

This may be what del Toro wants–it is the more pleasant option–but, more importantly, it is clearly how del Toro believes the story should be told. There is no categorizing necessary, no ranking desired. The things that go bump in the night merit the same consideration, the same conviction of del Toro as a storyteller and filmmaker as the things that raise their rifles and streak their blood-stained story across a nation’s legacy. He passes no judgments and believes as fervently as his heroine. When the film reaches its brave, logical, grim conclusion, I think it’s actually fairly clear whether the magic is real, but the opposing interpretation is equally valid. The one last inspired stroke by del Toro is that, through either reading, you can find a way to believe that our heroine, our Ofelia, forced her way into a happy ending of her own making.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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