Lowdown: A grim modern version of a Grimm Brothers like story.
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of those films about which you hear only good stuff. That, plus it being Spanish, plus it supposedly being a children story with some fairy tale elements, have made me quite curious to finally watch it.
Set in 1944 Spain, just post the civil war and just after Fraco’s side has won it, it tells the story of a child (Ophelia) as she and her pregnant sick mother arrive at an army base governed by the Captain, the mother’s new husband, who is also the father of her pregnancy but not the father of Ophelia. The Captain’s job is to exterminate the last traces of resistance, and make no doubt about it: exterminate he does with extreme prejudice (this is not a kids’ film!). Ophelia, however, is not taken by the show of power; she gets relief through a fantasy world she encounters (or, as the film subtly hints, invents). And in that world she is a princess that has to fulfil a quest in order to ignite her princess-liness.
Thus the film revolves around Ophelia and her magic world on one side, and the Captain and his very materialistic world on the other. The Captain is a brutal killer that has no trace of emotion or empathy left in him while Ophelia is the emblem of innocence. The two stories are excellently woven together and the result is imaginative and gripping; it is rare to see films that are better done than Pan’s Labyrinth.
There’s more to Pan’s Labyrinth, though. There is a wide array of very well developed characters, all of them mirroring different character aspects; the world of Pan’s Labyrinth is far from being a black & white, “you’re either with us or against us” world. The portrayal of the Spanish civil war is also fascinating; I don’t know much about it but I have heard the stories of brutality that still haunt Spaniards today, and the film definitely depicts that aspect very well.
One problem I did find with Pan’s Labyrinth is that too many things are left unexplained. For example, some of the things that happen during Ophelia’s magical tasks seem to be there for no particular reason other than being there (without going into too much detail, the fig tree and the toad she encounters never serve any purpose and no attempt is made to explain existence in the first place). Director Del Toro explains that this was intentional because of his attempt to generate a simple story and because he doesn’t like it when everything is explained the way it usually is in a Hollywood film. While I can definitely see where he’s coming from, I have to say I disagree; I think he has a mix-up between giving purpose to things and between dumbing down, which is what Hollywood’s crime is.
Actually, this is an interesting philosophical debate: just how much purpose do we need to assign to things to make us satisfied with them? Personally, I think many if not most things and events do not have any particular purpose; they just happen, as in the case of the comet that killed the dinosaurs lacking any motivation to kill anything. If the problem is infinitely reduced then I will admit that I also have no idea why certain laws of physics behave the way they do, and I’m pretty sure my knowledge there will never improve significantly. However, as nice as all this is, a movie represents different territory: since a movie is essentially an artificial creation it has to have a purpose by definition. That purpose might be to demonstrate the lack of a purpose, but that is still a viable purpose. In my opinion, while certain movie elements may lack a purpose in order to stimulate the viewer down a certain path, too much of it helps create an inefficient and straying film; I don’t want to watch a black screen for an hour in order to be demonstrated how far a lack of a purpose can go.
My point is simple. There is a fine balance to be struck between purpose and the lack of it in an artificial artistic creation, and in my opinion Pan’s Labyrinth strays too much towards the chaotic side, to the point that some of its events feel like detached sub movies.
Another problem I have with Pan’s Labyrinth is its advocacy of Christian values with which I totally disagree. According to the film, it’s the choices we make in life that count, and thus far I agree: indeed, the evil Captain is bad by choice and the innocent Ophelia is innocent by choice. However, the film then goes on to suggest that the pain we endure because of our choices is to do with some heavenly game played by god; we are not meant to understand why we feel this pain, but eventually we will be permanently rewarded if we do make the right choices. A nice concept, but bullshit by any other name is still bullshit; regardless of the lack of permanent rewards, a decent god should have no problems disclosing information to those being affected by it. Or, to put it another way: our suffering here on this earth serves no purpose whatsoever.
Best scene: There are many candidates here. I’ll go with the flow and point at the film’s climax, where the Captain and Ophelia both face the consequences of their choices.
Picture quality: There is no digital artefact in sight. It seems obvious a lot of effort was made into creating this DVD. However, often the picture is far from being perfect, but that is probably the result of the lighting choices made during the shoot.
Sound quality: Nice, but nothing spectacular.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a film with 4 stars written all over it. However, just as I have rewarded the 3 stars worth A Good Year with an extra star for touching some sensitive nerves, I will deduct half a star here for the annoying philosophies.
3.5 out of 5 stars.