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We Call It Maze

February 5th, 2007

I did indeed spurn yesterday’s ritualized headbutting for a late afternoon screening of Pan’s Labyrinth. Turns out that there were quite a few of us seeking asylum from sporting mayhem; there was a good turnout at the local art house.

My interest in the film was mostly due to its director, Guillermo del Toro. I loved his adaptation of Hellboy, and was suitably impressed by his earlier giant cockroach film, Mimic. He’s long been trying to launch a movie based on H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and I think that if anyone could do it justice, it would be del Toro.

Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in Spain 1944, in the aftermath of a civil war (something they clearly didn’t cover in my history classes). It’s about a little girl who slips away from the horrors of the conflict and her monstrous stepfather–a brutal army captain–by slipping into a fantasy world in which she may just be the reincarnation of a lost princess.

It was a film that I admired more than I enjoyed. The fantasy sequences took up relatively little of the length, leaving me with a lot of time to spend among vicious and/or miserable people. We are shown the depravities of the Captain straight away in a scene in which he uses a bottle to repeated bash in the face of a suspected rebel (who, of course, is completely innocent). It’s far from the last time I saw him behave unspeakably, and it got to be a bit much. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more grateful to see a fictional character die.

Meanwhile, the film takes a coy, ambiguous approach to its fantasy escape. Are there really fairies and monsters, or is the girl merely imagining things? There’s certainly evidence to support both views. Her attempt to heal her mother’s illness with a magical mandrake root seems to work, and if not, it’s entirely too coincidental that the woman has a sudden relapse when the thing is tossed in the fireplace.

In the end, however, I felt that the film veered toward dismissing the fantasy as delusion. And if that’s the case, then the whole thing is too sad for words, because if the girl is not in fact a fairy princess, her story is entirely pointless. She accomplishes nothing, saves no one, and dies in the end. It’s “The Little Match Girl” with a vomiting toad.

I can appreciate the quality of the enterprise. The design work is terrific, the acting is solid (so far as I can tell, since the dialogue is in Spanish) and aside from a bit too much obvious day-for-night photography, it looks really good. But there was more real-life horror than I’d counted on, coupled with too little hope of escape.

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