January 6th, 2007

Kambei (The Seven Samurai)

Franco Era Terror Returns

happy birthday

The weather today was absolutely stunning. It was 70 degrees and comfortable, and lower Manhattan felt like a nice late spring/early summer day. I met up with Russ and his girlfriend Jessica downtown for some dim sum, then walked over to Washington Square Park to meet with Brad, went up to 42nd Street to catch Pan's Labyrinth, had a nice Tex Mex dinner and got home at a decent hour (which is good as I have to wake up early tomorrow morning for Kyra's Christening). It was just a nice day all around, good food, great company... and I finally managed to see the movie, which Raz and I had attempted to see last week but were foiled when the show sold out (we saw Curse of the Golden Flower instead).

I know a few of you have been waiting for my take on this one...

El Laberinto del Fauno

Guillermo del Toro's slick 2001 thriller The Devil's Backbone combined politics with the supernatural, and while this film is in many ways a spiritual successor to that work, it goes much further than anything even hinted at in del Toro's ouevre. In fact, it is perhaps the fullest manifestation of his talents to date.

While the trailers have been emphasizing the fantasy elements of the film, they are not actually the primary focus of the film. Rather, the film follows several characters in a small town in the middle of nowhere in Spain as the Fascists are stamping out the last remnants of resistance. Capitán Vidal (Sergi López) is the brutal officer in charge of this operation, which is not an easy task as most of the people in the area are sympathetic to the rebels, including some members of his household, most prominently Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). These two characters are avatars the sadistic Republicans and the heroic Nationalists, and their relationship to one another and their ultimate destinies is very much a key element of the film, which is at heart a metaphor for how the Franco era cost the Spanish people their innocence.

Into this situation is thrust the imaginative Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) in a move of great desperation, has married Vidal and is now pregnant. The journey was rough on Carmen, and she is attended by the noble physician Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo). The war surrounds them and Ofelia feels isolated and retreats into her beloved fairy tales. In no time, she seems to be living one herself; a mythic creature (Doug Jones) that doesn't identify himself* tells her that she is the reincarnation of a princess of a vast underground kingdom and that she has tasks to perform to claim her rightful place.

And so Ofelia begins a quest of her own, but the magical world she forays into is fraught with peril and consequences as well. For a period, it seems that she is escaping from the harshness of her circumstances, but the film plays with the concept of reality and fantasy. The motivation of the faun himself is brought under question at one point in the film, and the situations he sends her into are increasingly dangerous... but the horrors that Ofelia comes across in her adventures are nothing compared to the vicious cruelty of Vidal, whose cold pride makes him one of the best villains of 2006. Vidal has his own fantasies: a world in which the sating of his savage appetites is not only acceptable, but a noble legacy for his son; the Nationalists imagine a world where decency might be possible. None of them - not even Ofelia (whose tasks become progressively more dangerous) - can achieve their goals without bloodshed, however.

This is a film about conflicts, and conflicts get bloody. The most frightening aspects of the film are not from the fantasy elements - though they can get pretty disturbing - but rather from the realities of what human beings can do to one another... and why. This is an intense and dark film, one that knows exactly how to re-awaken long-forgotten childhood anxieties and fuse them with historical atrocities with an unrelenting authenticity.

The cast, which also includes Manolo Solo, César Vea and Roger Casamajor is uniformly excellent, Guillermo Navarro's carefully crafted chiaroscuro cinematography accentuates both the oppressiveness of Facism and the sumptiousness of del Toro's fantasy sequences. Javier Navarrette's score is really good, haunting stuff; I'd been listening to it for a few weeks now, but it works even better in context of the film, and Martín Hernández's immersive sound design is also very good. The special effects are like the extreme graphic violence in the film; they exist as part of the story.

The film is very rewarding, but be forewarned it is an emotionally taxing experience. It is, however, an excellent and unique fusion of several different genres. Del Toro's films are usually entertaining, but this one achieves a level of artistic accomplishment that dwarfs his previous works.

* The reference to "Pan" is technically in the English title and credits only; the Spanish translates more directly to The Faun's Labyrinth. That said, according to del Toro, the character is supposed to be Pan, although this information is never directly conveyed by the text of the film.