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January 22, 2007
Rating: 9.5/10

Mexico's recent crop of fine directors: Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) are obviously benefiting from their rare friendship and system of critique and response to each others' film projects. Needless to say these guys are making some of the most interesting cinema today and their collaboration seems to serve as a method of refining and polishing their respective cinematic gems. Pan's Labyrinth may be the best film the group has yet produced and most certainly deserves accolades for its style, substance and incredible poignancy. Although he received input from Cuarón and Iñárritu, with Pan's Labyrinth del Toro seems to be giving us his take on Terry Gilliam's Brazil, offering up reality as an insane nightmare that requires sane people to flee into their imaginations in escape. There are even rebel factions fighting an oppressive regime.

Pan's Labyrinth is the kind of great cinema that creeps up on you slowly. I was NOT immediately engrossed in the plot or characters and began to worry that maybe the hype around the film was unwarranted. I'd heard this was del Toro's first masterpiece and was disappointed when I wasn't blown away from the opening shot. It finally dawned on me that del Toro was looking to make a film without compromising his vision and had decided to take his time getting things, like place and character, established. The result is spectacular. Everything: the story, the acting and the editing are seamless. Pan's Labyrinth is a fully realized, adult fairy tale.

One of the most impressing aspects of Pan's Labyrinth was the lack of clichéd revelatory CGI moments. Most epic films of late have featured some kind of wide shot - a field of monsters doing battle or a superhero defying the laws of physics - while symphonic music swells and the audience is supposed to be impressed with the fantastical world the director has transported them to. Pan's Labyrinth, although regularly employing interesting digital effects, does not attempt to send us to Narnia or Skull Island, and the closest thing to a superhero is a little girl who wants to save her mom and unborn baby brother. This use of effects as support for, rather than the focus of, the story makes this world seem very real and intense and, as in the scene with a creature called "The Pale Man," very frightening.

The film deals with a little girl named Ofelia who uses her active and healthy 12-year-old imagination to escape the repressive and pestilent combination of her sadistic stepfather and a war that everyone in Spain is trying hard to deny. Ofelia's mother is pregnant and forced by her new husband, Captain Vidal, to join him in a remote country garrison where the Captain is squashing a rebellion led by those who oppose Franco's fascist regime. Captain Vidal very quickly announces himself as the villain of the piece by helping Ofelia out of a car with a painfully strong grip. Vidal views Ofelia as an undisciplined nuisance in part because of her refusal to recognize him as her father. While exploring her new digs Ofelia discovers a stone maze leading to a spiral stair that winds deep underground. After some further exploration, at the prompting of a fairy, Ofelia meets Pan, a towering faun who charges Ofelia with a three-part quest. Although the faun's motivations seem highly questionable, Ofelia's need for a distraction from reality is so pressing that she charges ahead with Pan's missions even though her seemingly imaginary friend is asking her to do things with very real and very dangerous consequences.

Del Toro treats the character of Ofelia with a kind of reverence that few adults ever bestow upon children. Ofelia's perception of the world, real or imagined, is treated without bias and whether she is fleeing a baggy skinned monstrosity from another dimension or standing up to Captain Vidal's tyranny, Ofelia is strength incarnate. In fact it is the adults whose vulnerable viewpoints are most questionable here; from Ofelia's frail deluded mother, ignoring her husband's true nature, to the deeply flawed belief in a Fascist Utopia held by many of the adults in Pan's Labyrinth. These delusional grown-ups make Ofelia's phantasmagoric visions seem positively plausible.

In Ofelia's fantasy realm there may be horrific beasts and creeping terror but back in the real world there is nothing but the relentless onslaught of war. Pan's Labyrinth does not pull punches and shows the violent horrors of war in some of the starkest battle sequences you are likely to see this side of Letters from Iwo Jima. There is no battlefield glory here and no thrilling gunplay either; when the rebels' bombs go off the explosions are loud and disturbing. There is also some relevance to the President Bush's war on Islam. Pan's Labyrinth laments the universal trappings of war: torture, amputation and the general public's futile attempts to pretend everything is ok. This is particularly relevant to a culture that actively chooses to know and care more about douche bags like Clay Aiken and Paris Hilton than the enemy and innocents being killed in their name on the other side of the globe.

Pan's Labyrinth is a moving and spectacular achievement by one of the finest directors working today. See it in the theater if you can, as this is a big screen spectacle. Also keep in mind this is a movie for adults. I heard an asshole TV critic tell viewers that Pan's Labyrinth is not for kids under 12. To me, Pan's Labyrinth is simply not for kids. This is a movie very much designed for adults. The only common ground between Pan's Labyrinth and, say, The Chronicles of Narnia are a pair of goat hooves and some cute little pixies. However, in Pan's Labyrinth you watch in horror, as the pixies become the bloody lunch of some demonic monstrosity.

SEE ALSO: www.panslabyrinth.com

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LAS’s editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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