Friday, September 12, 2008

Movies: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

Writing about this movie is hard for me, because I didn't like it at all, although I can't say it isn't an excellent film. I can't say that the story isn't creative, that the acting isn't good, or that the cinematography isn't luscious. I can say that it scared me, that it was brutally violent, and often quite grotesque. I can say that I left the theater anticipating very bad dreams. I can also say that it leans a bit too heavily on Christian imagery in the final scenes of redemption, although one could make the argument that in that way, religion is equated with the fantasy of fairy tales, and argument that I can easily agree with, though I strongly doubt that was writer/director del Toro's intention.

The story is one deeply rooted in the genre of the Gothic and Sublime : young Ofelia's father has died, and her mother brings her to a creaky, isolated, mansion-turned-fortress where her new husband, a captain in the fascist army (we are in Spain, 1944), is fighting a group of forest-dwelling rebels. Ofelia doesn't like the man, and while her mother ails in pregnancy, she spends her days exploring the overgrown ruins of a labyrinth on the property. An insect turned fairy through her willingness to believe guides her in the middle of the night down spiral stone steps at the labyrinth's center, where she meets a (very very scary looking) satyr, who gives her a magic book (its blank pages fill with words and color when the time is right) and tells her that she will need to complete three tasks before the full moon in order to regain her title as princess of an ancient kingdom, where her father has been waiting. She begins these tasks, although they interfere with the house's social goings-on. All the while, in the "real" world, the Captain's housekeeper and doctor are moles for the rebels, bringing them food, medicine, and information.

Ultimately, the two stories come together; the captain discovers the doctor and shoots him dead, Ofelia's mother dies in childbirth, but the baby survives, and Ofelia's third and final task is to bring him to the Labyrinth. The captain chases her there, and sees her speaking to thin air, while we see her speaking to the satyr. The creature demands that she give up her brother; the blood of an innocent must be shed to reopen the gate to her father's kingdom. Ofelia refuses. And then, the captain shoots the little girl dead, taking back his son, only to find the rebels waiting for him outside the labyrinth in a united front; they take the baby and kill him. As Ofelia's blood drips down onto the gate to the other world, we see her transported, in red and gold, to a light-infused, high-ceilinged cathedral, where three thrones on dangerously long legs look down at her; in the center sits an old and bearded man; to his right, her mother. They ask her to take her seat in the third throne. They are, of course, God, Mary, and Christ, every-so-slightly reconfigured.

The scariest scene may be the most artistically profound; Ofelia's second task is to use a golden key she obtained in the first task to unlock a tiny door and find a gold and silver dagger. This chamber, though, is one she reaches by drawing a door on the wall with magic chalk, and then walking through a long hall until she reaches a banquet hall. The walls are painted with disturbing murals of a monster eating children; the sounds of wailing babies filter through the air, and a pile of discarded shoes, all of them tiny, stands in the corner. The table is laden with shining food and dewy fruits, but at its head sits the freakish monster from the murals: a chicken-skinned man with no hair, no eyes, long bloody claws for fingers, and two nostrils with no nose. He sits unmoving until Ofelia eats the food she was repeatedly warned not to touch, at which time he comes to life, taking two eyeballs off the plate before him, plugging them into blinking sockets in the palms of his hands, and then holding his open hands up to his head, creating the most ghastly (and yet somehow delightful—deliciously frightful, as the Sublime always insists) face you've ever encountered. I think it's for this creature alone that MoMA decided to include this film in its Salvador Dalí festival. This monster was born in the Surreal.

There is a pervasive darkness in the Spanish aesthetic, and it's not something I've ever identified with (detesting beloved painters like Velasquez, Goya, and yes, Dalí, though he's the least dark of them all). Parts of the film (particularly the role of the mandrake root) recalled Fuentes' massive novel Terra Nostra, which I oddly enjoyed in spite of that aesthetic (though in a way, I liked reading a Velasquez painting better than seeing one, if that makes any sense). The more I think about what del Toro has done here, the more amazed I am, and yet, I am still so afraid, so very horrified by his creatures, by his cruelty, that I don't want to think about it any more.