Thursday, July 9, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth: Both Hopeful and Haunting

The lullaby of the piece says it all: Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is painfully poignant. Every aspect is beautiful, from its poetic dialogue to its rich cinematography.

A tense and frightening story, Pan's Labyrinth is set after the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a little girl with an intuitive imagination who moves to a military outpost in the middle of the woods. Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is carrying the child of Ofelia's step-father, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López). There, Ofelia meets the strong servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who is secretly supplying rebels hiding in the forest. Ofelia is also meets more inscrutable and unusual creatures, which lead her deep into an old labyrinth. At the center, she meets a faun, a being which smells like earth and who tells her that she is a long lost princess of an underground kingdom. To reclaim her place, he assigns her three tasks.

Most of the film focuses on the "real world", leaving the existence of Ofelia's fantasy world up to the viewer. This reality involves an exceedingly brutal step-father, an ill mother, and the cruelty of war. The Faun's, or Pan's, world mirrors the terror Ofelia senses, though rarely sees. We, however, do see the depravity of Captain Vidal, who tortures and mercilessly murders, all in a day's work. Mercedes' courage in the face of the captain reflects Ofelia's bravery while encountering a spine-chilling monster in one task. For once, this movie monster is terrifying in its hideousness. Almost as frightening as the war itself.

Ofelia is played by the wide-eyed Baquero, who reacts sometimes minimally but always honestly. Mercedes is ridiculously likable in her quiet heroism. Vidal is so obviously a monster, especially because he views himself as a noble soldier who does his job. At one point he notes that others must think he is a monster. It is a strange thing to realize that he does not see himself as a brute. Pan himself (Doug Jones) is an ambiguous creature. To both Ofelia and the audience, he is threatening and comforting.

The creatures and sets are gorgeous and twisted creations. It is a rare fantasy/war movie that succeeds in distressing, emotionally engaging, and uplifting the viewer. Some have said that the conclusion is bleak, while others find it transcendent. This film is not perfect, and be warned that it can be difficult to take. However, I highly recommend it, as Pan's Labyrinth is one of the most beautiful and powerful movies I have seen.

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