Monday, December 11, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth (with spoilers)

There are songs and albums that grow on you. When you hear them for the first time they don't really seem to work, but after a while you begin to like them. Some earlier Sting-albums go to this category, and I've also been very slow to warm up to U2 in general. It's as if you didn't understand them at first, but after getting used to the sound the message opens up. Perhaps there are layers of meaning that need to be understood before the sheer appreciation of the layeredness and complexity wins you over. Or perhaps the context was simply wrong the first time around - you can't listen to soothing evening-music on the gym or in the car, and sunshine-music doesn't really work under cover on cold winter nights.

Mostly it's not so much about deep messages, layers or any other cerebral complexities. There are simple and stupid pop songs that are just somehow irresistible, and there is a lot of pseudo-deep rubbish and intolerably snobbish artsy-fartsy gunk that is simply irritating.

It's perhaps easier to give music a second chance than to go and see a film again, or to read a book multiple times. I never read books again, even if i like them, and pretty much the only films I see again and again are the Bond films, since they are pretty much just as good on the first and the tenth time. Emphasis on the term "just as good".

Pan's Labyrinth is one of the films that might benefit from second viewing, but I have no intention to see it again. The problem is, it has symbolism, layers and all that stuff, but I think I "got" most of it the first time around and it didn't really do it to me.

It's a film by a Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, about 1944 Spain and a girl whose mum remarries an officer in Franco's army, moves to his post, an old mill in the middle of a forest. While the fascist army is controlling all resources and trying to uproot all resistance guerrillas that have fled to the surrounding forests, the little girl escapes to the fantasy world and starts a quest to fulfill the tasks that the faun gives to her to unlock the gates to the underworld, so that she, a missing princess, could be reunited with her father, the king of underworld. Fantasy and the girls' tasks intertwine with the struggles in real life; the guerrillas against the army, rebels among the staff in the fort, army's efforts to maintain control, and the girl's mother's problematic pregnancy and the girl's refusal to accept her new stepfather.

It has layers, symbolism and all those things, but unfortunately the symbolism is just as direct and in-your-face as in the best Spanish tradition of Pedro Almodóvar and Bigas Luna, but without the heart-warming humour or self-irony of it (remember Jamon Jamon and those balls of the silhuette Toro...).

It's the end of the great war, but also just a beginning of the oppressive fascist regime in Spain. Food was scarce and under lock and key, and everyone was looking for a way out of the misery. No surprise then that the little girl's fantasies have to do with eating, keys and doorways, or both. There is a fat toad who lives in the roots of the tree, eating bugs and killing the tree. Perhaps he was Franco himself, perhaps the commander of the fort. She feeds the toad golden balls as cockroaches, and he explodes. Later she tries to poison her stepfather by spiking his drink. Then there is the child-eating monster, another stepfather-figure for the girl, who has a lavish table of delicacies just to attract victims. Not too far removed from the dinner party the commander organises just before. There's also the issue of obeying the rules - be they those that the commander sets at the fort, or the ones that the faun makes, perhaps the ones the girl's conscience gives and the discord of what she feels is right and what she sees at the fort.

We have lots of keys in the film, one uncovered in the stomach of the toad, one that the commander holds opens the food and medicine storage, and then there of course is the whole thing about unlocking the gateway to the underworld by doing the deeds that the faun sets.

There are also some pretty graphic and "unnecessary" scenes of violence, in my opinion there just for the shock effect. Yes, the world the film depicts is violent and bad, there is torture etc., but showing it in closeups is not actually making it any more "real", just more revolting, and it takes away some of the effect of the film.

My first comment coming out of the cinema was that it was OK, but I found it a bit pointless. I think the only "point" the film made (perhaps it was just me, not the film?) was that when the rest of Europe started breathing more freely and began reconstruction after the WW2 and the fall of fascism in Germany and Italy, in Spain the nightmare was just beginning. Never really thought about it that way, but imagine someone growing up during the war; they wasted most of their lives living under Franco's rule, had to make do under a fascist regime for another 30 years...

The film has a gory, dark tone to it and it is of the Grimm-tradition rather than (recent) Disney. Pan's Labyrinth had integrity and style, it all fit together, the actors were good, there was originality in the story, and the visual effects were cool, but I didn't like it. I think it took itself too seriously. The fairy-world wasn't enchanting or fantastic enough. Perhaps it was del Toro trying to say that even a gory fantasy like that was for the girl better than the reality, and death the best possible option, but especially since the film opens with the main character dying, some glimmers of light would have been good along the way.

OK, I can't really completely trash any film that makes me write about it. So if fantasy is your cup of tea and you like dark things, by all means go see it. It's done well. Guillermo del Toro, the director / screenwriter (so, should we call him auteur?) has a fascination in fantasy and fascism, as he is also the father of Hellboy, a fantasy series about a demon that the Nazis arise. I have no more intention to get to know Hellboy than I have to watch this one again.

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