Saturday, March 3, 2007


Ever since I saw Guillermo Del Toro’s strange little vampire film Cronos, I knew this was a filmmaker I needed to keep my eyes on. And over the years, he has not disappointed.

After Cronos, the director had his first brush with Hollywood with Mimic. A flawed creature feature marred by studio interference, Mimic was still nonetheless recognizable as the work of an evolving storyteller.
Del Toro then went on to El Espinazo Del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone), a ghost story set in an orphanage in 1939 Spain.
This quietly chilling tale was quickly followed by his second Hollywood feature, Blade II. Popcorn movie, yes. But this was popcorn laced with buckets of butter, blood, and adrenaline, and was far superior than its predecessor, Stephen Norrington’s Blade.
Working with comic book artist Mike Mignola on Blade II then led to Hellboy, the film adaptation of Mignola’s comic book of the same name.
Then, last year brought us what many (including myself) consider his best work to date: the darkly magickal El Laberinto Del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth).

Set in 1944 Spain, El Laberinto Del Fauno tells the tale of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, who won a Goya1 for Breakthrough Performance), whose widowed mother Carmen (Aridna Gil) has recently married one Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, known for doing light romantic comedies). Vidal has his heavily pregnant wife and stepdaughter transported to the outpost he is commandant of, an outpost beset by the activities of a band of rebels, covertly being helped by a couple of the camp’s insiders: Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo, who worked with Pedro Almodovar on Carne TremulaLive Flesh).
And as socio-political turmoil rages around her, book-loving Ofelia discovers that there is another facet to the world she lives in, a facet of magick and fairies and ancient fauns, who reveal what could very well be her secret destiny.

Mining the Alice in Wonderland template and placing it in the context of a country torn by civil war, Del Toro takes us deep into the maze of a child’s life, a child whose world is undergoing upheaval, just as the larger world around her is experiencing the wracking pains of a global war. And in doing so, he does what every director should do: tell us a moving, involving story that is, ultimately, about something more than just the narrative, and, in the process of storytelling, shows us something we’ve never seen before.

For those who may be inclined to dismiss El Laberinto Del Fauno as a frivolous work of fantasy, understand that the “real world” elements of the film—particularly the rebels fighting for a cause they are putting their lives on the lines for—are treated with the utmost seriousness. One only need see Lopez’s coldly cruel Captain Vidal dealing with a suspected insurgent using only a wine bottle to be convinced that this is not a whimsical children’s movie.

And as for Del Toro showing the audience cinematic sights heretofore unseen, three words.
The Pale Man.
For my money, the Pale Man is one of the creepiest movie characters to have graced the silver screen in 2006. (He, along with the assorted residents of Silent Hill, made last year a year when the darkened theater once more became a place of unease and dread.)

Though Del Toro’s work has always displayed elements of the fantastic, in his non-Hollywood work (Cronos, El Espinazo Del Diablo, and El Laberinto Del Fauno), it is apparent that however scary his ghosts and vampires and fauns are, what is far more terrifying are the forces of the mundane, the men whose world these creatures move through.

Coping with the horrors her world presents her with, Ofelia moves through the ritualized paces of the traditional Quest (three tasks to perform before she can come into her destiny), speeding her inexorably towards the film’s moving climax.
Just as we are witness to Ofelia’s journey through her own metaphorical labyrinth, so we see the other characters of the tale, navigating their own personal mazes as best they can, shedding blood and tears in equal measure, as they struggle towards some greater understanding of their lives.

And when we finally emerge at the film’s denouement, we are exposed to the savage, uncompromising beauty of the narrative’s end. This is a beauty which both ravages and scours, and yet, feels right somehow, as if there was no other way this story could have ended.
Standing there, with that cold knowledge now a part of us, we look back, yearning for a fleeting glimpse of a fairie’s wing, or the earthy smell of an ancient faun, wondering if there is any way we can return to our innocence and ignorance, but knowing we cannot.
For a lesson, once learned cannot (and should not) ever be forgot.

With El Laberinto Del Fauno, Del Toro has secured his place as a master storyteller on the stage of global cinema, racking up nominations and wins at the Goyas and the BAFTAs.2 It also garnered six Saturn nominations.3 And in a few days’ time, we’ll see if Oscar loves it too.4
Here’s hoping.

1 The Goyas are Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars. El Laberinto Del Fauno won 7 out of its 13 nominations. Aside from Breakthrough Performance, it won for Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Film Editing, Sound, and Makeup and Hair Design.

2 Its BAFTA wins were Film Not in the English Language, Costume Design, and Make Up and Hair (3 out of 8 nominations).

3 Its Saturn nominations are for Best International Film (where it’s up against Gwoemul), Best Supporting Actor (Sergi Lopez, up against Superman Returns’ James Marsden), Best Performance by a Younger Actor (Ivana Baquero, up against Gwoemul’s Ah-sung Ko and Superman Returns’ Tristan Lake Leabu), Best Direction (where Del Toro is up against good friend Alfonso Cuaron, as well as Bryan Singer), Best Writing (where Del Toro bangs heads with Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, for Superman Returns), and Best Make-up (going up against Slither and The Descent).
As you can see, I’m very conflicted when it comes to the Saturns…

4 Its 6 Oscar nominations are for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay, Achievement in Art Direction, Achievement in Cinematography, Achievement in Makeup, and Original Score.

Parting shot: It’s also up for two Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Picture.

(Originally posted 022307)

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