Saturday, August 25, 2012

Princess Moanna

Film: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Within the first 20-25 minutes of El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), we have seen a fairy, met the faun of the title, and have seen two men murdered in cold blood, one by being brutally smashed in the face with a wine bottle by the commandant of a military camp. In each case, we are shown the main themes of Guillermo del Toro’s film. The fairy is not a cute critter from a Disney film. The faun is no benign beast of the forest. The commandant (Sergi Lopez) is a true monster in human form.

Few directors are able to blend the idea of the fantastic with the terrible world of the real as well as del Toro. It’s familiar ground for him--Hellboy and particularly The Devil’s Backbone walk these same avenues, but both of those films have a very different vision than this one. The release of this film put del Toro on the map in many ways, particularly for the art house crowd. There’s a reason for that—this film is in many ways the highest realization of del Toro’s personal vision.

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are traveling through the Spanish countryside at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. The mother has married the commandant of a fascist camp (mentioned above). He is a man of uncommon cruelty, which does not bode well for Ofelia, who is a girl of fairy tale sensibilities. Near the camp Ofelia discovers a stone labyrinth. Soon, she begins to see fairies, and an evening trip into the labyrinth brings her face to face with the unnamed faun of the title (played by del Toro favorite Doug Jones, voiced by Pablo Adan). The faun tells Ofelia that she is the reincarnation of a fairy princess named Moanna, and to reclaim her position in the world below, she must complete a trio of tasks.

Meanwhile, up in the forest around the fascist camp, the remaining communist rebels are slowly dying off, but are aided by a sympathetic doctor (Alex Angulo) and the sister of one of the rebels, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who also happens to be the main servant of the commandant. It is through her connections and her access to the fascist camp that the rebels get food and medicine.

While the commandant attempts to maintain control of the area around his camp, Mercedes works to thwart him as much as possible, and Ofelia’s mother slowly succumbs to a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia learns of her three tasks needed to send her back to the world of the fairies.

While this is not a difficult film to write about, it’s one that I’d rather not go into significant detail on, simply because of how truly special it is. There are few films that create the sort of atmosphere that El Laberinto del Fauno manages, a blend of a real, terrible world and a world of fantasy that is in many ways just as terrible. This world of the faun holds dangers and duplicity, and Ofelia/Moanna never really knows where she stands or how to do the things she is told to do.

This is one of the great strengths of the film. The world of fantasy here is one that is of singular beauty and detail, but there are creatures here of terrible power and evil. The faun himself is a trickster character, specifically untrustworthy from the first, but he is not close to the scariest thing around. That is the Pale Man (also played by Doug Jones), a nightmare creature far more terrifying than the majority of movie boogeymen. The genius of del Toro, though, is that as frightening as the child-eating Pale Man is, the commandant of the camp is far more terrible and cruel, if only because he chooses cruelty rather than being forced into it by his nature. This is an important theme in del Toro’s work—for him, humanity is always more awful than the creatures, which might be destructive or rampant. It is people, though, that are capable of the greatest evil. It’s an idea that appears in almost everything he does.

El Laberinto del Fauno is in many ways the film that put Guillermo del Toro on the map as a truly visionary director, as someone to watch. The reason for that is not particularly the story, as good as it is, but the truly amazing visual moments. Creatures like the faun and the Pale Man are so marvelously detailed and realized that the only reaction to them is to simply sit in wonder at them. That he also has a compelling story around them, and fully realized characters simply adds to the strength of this film.

Let’s return to what I mentioned at the start. In that brutal twin killing, we see the commandant question a couple of men who he suspects of being communists. The men are farmers from the area who had been out hunting rabbits. Tired of listening to one of them, the commandant pulls a wine bottle from the man’s satchel and smashes it into his face over and over until there is no face left. It’s brutal, shocking, and sadistic, and in those few moments, we learn everything we need to know about this man. While terribly violent, this is not gratuitous, but entirely necessary, yet another indication of del Toro’s skill as a writer and director.

There are a few other moments that will be difficult for the squeamish. There’s some blood, a giant vomiting frog, a few moments of torture, an amputation, and the most disturbing knife wound and suturing I’ve seen in a long time. Don’t let this bother you. Know that it’s there for a reason.

As for the fantasy, the film leaves it open-ended as to whether or not Ofelia is truly experiencing this other world. It’s up to us to choose if she is merely a girl with a vivid imagination or truly the new incarnation of Princess Moanna. You can choose for yourself—I choose to believe in her fairy tale.

El Laberinto del Fauno is not my favorite del Toro film (El Espinazo del Diablo is), but it is in many ways his most fully realized, most visionary, and most beautiful.

Why to watch El Laberinto del Fauno: It is a near-perfect fantasy, a fairy tale for real.
Why not to watch: Those with tender tummies will find some parts quite awful.


  1. Magnificent review, and a spot-on assessment of del Toro and his agenda. Especially interesting is the way you chose to end your review:

    "As for the fantasy, the film leaves it open-ended as to whether or not Ofelia is truly experiencing this other world. It’s up to us to choose if she is merely a girl with a vivid imagination or truly the new incarnation of Princess Moanna. You can choose for yourself—I choose to believe in her fairy tale."

    This is precisely the ethical/aesthetic choice the reader of Life of Pi has to make. I don't know whether you've read Yann Martel's excellent novel, but at the novel's end, the reader is invited to choose between the beautiful, poetic narrative he has just experienced, or a more brutal (and arguably more plausible) alternate narrative that may in fact be the "real" story. "I choose to believe in her fairy tale" comes awfully close to the choice one has to make-- the choice I made-- by the end of Life of Pi.

    Another literary tie-in comes from my favorite fantasy author, Stephen R. Donaldson, and his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Thomas Covenant is an embittered leper who gets thrust into an alternate universe-- a universe in which he possesses unimaginable power that can save or damn its inhabitants. Before his translation into this alternate realm, he receives a warning from an old Hindu beggar in the form of a story/riddle:

    "A real man - real in all the ways that we recognize as real - finds himself suddenly abstracted from the world and deposited in a physical situation which could not possibly exist: sounds have aromas, smells have color and depth, sights have texture, touch has pitch and timbre. There he is informed by a disembodied voice that he has been brought to that place as a champion for his world. He must fight to the death in single combat against a champion from another world. If he is defeated, he will die, and his world - the real world - will be destroyed because it lacks the inner strength to survive.

    The man refuses to believe that what he is told is true. He asserts that he is either dreaming or hallucinating, and declines to be put in the false position of fighting to the death where no 'real' danger exists. He is implacable in his determination to disbelieve his apparent situation, and does not defend himself when he is attacked by the champion of the other world.

    Question: is the man's behavior courageous or cowardly? This is the fundamental question of ethics."

    I recall dismissing this question in a comparative ethics class, but was immediately contradicted by my ethics prof, who wisely noted that the fundamental question of ethics pertains intimately to whether or not we value something as real. How real is the suffering of people in Bangladesh, for instance? Does news of a few dozen Bangladeshi deaths through flooding give rise to a distant "Oh, that's too bad" reaction, or do we feel that suffering intensely because we value it as real?

    In the end, Thomas Covenant resolves his own internal paradox by affirming that the Land in which he finds himself is worth fighting for, real or not. His is a "believing unbelief," if you will.

    So I think del Toro, along with trying to say something about the destructiveness of mankind vis-à-vis untamed nature, is also trying to get us to ask ourselves what we value as real. He's asking us the fundamental question of ethics.

    Again, great review. Very thought-provoking.

    1. Ultimately with this film, that is the question that needs to be asked and answered, and needs to be answered by the individual viewer. We know Ofelia's answer intimately by the end of the film. How we choose to accept this fantasy world, I think, ultimately determines our opinion of the film.

      On its initial release, I went to this with my sister, and she was unhappy with me for at least part of the viewing. I remember, for instance, that scene with the bottle vividly; she leaned over to me and said, "What kind of movie are you making me watch?" By the end, we differed on what the ending meant to us and how we interpreted it.

      I suppose that's another sign of this being a film that plays in the realm of the truly greats--it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and while I don't agree with my sister's interpretation of the film, I do see how she got there.

      For me, there is no other answer than that the fairy tale is real, even if only for her.

      Your example of Bangladesh above puts me in mind of the old Stalin quote about the death of one person being a tragedy, but a million deaths being a statistic. I think it comes down to the same thing--one death is "real" in the sense that we can get our minds around it and understand it. We can capture that as something being real. One million deaths, though, is so gargantuan that we can't visualize it. We can't imagine it or parse it, and so it becomes something of unreality--a fact to store up rather than one million individual real tragedies.

  2. This is the most disturbing movie I've ever seen. There was something in the mix between fantasy and real world horrors that really hit me. I did a pretty stupid thing bringing my about 15 year old daughter to it. I had imagined it as some kind of fantasy film. It was nothing like that. As we left the cinema she was crying and we had to hug her and comfort her all the way home. I felt like a crap mother to expose her to this.
    This said: it's beautiful, very special and brilliant and will probably end up on my top 100 list of movies.

    1. I see it being disturbing, but that's one of the reasons I like it as much as I do. The thing I like about del Toro is that when he does hit us with something terribly disturbing, he does it for a reason--it's never there as something just to shock us or scare us, but to instruct us in the story or the characters. It's always with purpose.

  3. I always love films that allow the audience to interpret the ending/the film as they see fit, and this one is no exception. I saw this in theaters too and it was overwhelming, but in a wonderful way.

    I love the terror of the fairytale world in this film; it feels far more evocative of the original European fairy tales or Russian fairy tales, where horrible and gruesome things happen all the time. This is no Disney cartoon; this is mysterious and awful, but still rapturous.

    Very good review!

    1. It is the terror of the other world that makes this film worth seeing. We're so used to fairy tales presenting that world as a happy place of joy. Fairies are badass in the old tales, and del Toro is smart enough to remember that and use it.

  4. Spot on analysis of this film. One of the best and brightest in the entire book. The visual creations of Del Toro are top-notch. I love the story, too.

    1. The book, I believe, calls this film uneven, or disjointed, or something like that. I don't see it. I think it's pretty damn awesome start to finish.

  5. I'm surprised you hadn't reviewed Pan’s Labyrinth already, considering your love for The Devil's Backbone. I do love the visual side of Guillermo del Toro's work, but I find it tough to come to terms with a children's story containing extreme violence, and I wonder who the intended audience is. I guess that's his style, and Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed atmospheric.

    Re: the fantasy, I like to think Ofelia’s desire is to give life to the death surrounding her, Pan might be her subconscious. Likewise the violence could be an exaggeration in her mind.

    1. I was saving this one. There are a few others I've kept back for the same reason, just waiting for when I was ready.

      I don't think Pan's Labyrinth is a children's story. It's a story about a child, but it's not for kids. It makes it difficult to place, but it's also a reminder that horror isn't merely a part of the adult world--kids experience it, too, even though we don't want them to.

  6. Very good review. While I felt Hellboy was a fun movie, it never led me to believe that del Toro had a film like Pan's Labyrinth in him. (By the way, the mouth wound was the scene that had me cringing the most.)

    1. Yeah, the mouth wound is one of the few times I've ever covered my eyes in the theater.

      I see what you mean about Hellboy. I cannot recommend The Devil's Backbone enough. If you ever do a "devil" themed marathon, it should be on the top of the list. See that, and you'll get where Pan's Labyrinth got its start.

    2. I just added it to my Netflix queue.

    3. It's a personal favorite of mine. If you like it half as much as I do, you'll be very happy you watched it.

  7. Maybe I need to revisit this one... I've always liked del Toro's work (THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is amazing, HELLBOY is fun, heck, even BLADE 2 was a big improvement), but this movie left me cold. Maybe because it earned the most hype?

    1. Maybe. The Devil's Backbone is my favorite, but this one is visually more impressive. The two stories are similar in a lot of ways, though.

      If nothing else, even if the story doesn't do anything for you, there are few films with this sort of a visual appeal, so watch it for that.