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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Magic That You Weave So Well
by Donald Levit

No less fractured and cruel than Latin American literature’s magical realism, “fantastic realism” is what some Europeans have labeled the cult cinema of Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Del Toro brings his newest, Pan’s Labyrinth, as the closing night feature to this year’s 44th New York Film Festival. Working slowly and more elaborately, the filmmaker seeks to wring increased moral allegory in combining -- or, better, juxtaposing -- physical and fantasy worlds, history and myth.

For his sixth film, he turns again to the actuality of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War of The Devil’s Backbone, but with orphan Santi’s ghost replaced by the panoply of fairy tale. Not, however, as the Mexican needlessly pointed out at a press Q&A, our familiar sanitized stories that teach Disney lessons of rewards for good little boys and girls, but, rather, the dark racial memories embedded in the very grim originals. Beyond this, he would also comment sociopolitically with regard to “my best dream” of world regeneration as opposed to current sad conditions: a brief opening title and later reference to D day are easily overlooked and, in any case, unnecessary, but are intended to show a continued armed resistance to Franco and Fascism that is in fact historically dubious.

Done almost exclusively on sets, the paralleled parts are conjoined through the child Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). To minimal music, in his fourth collaboration with Del Toro, Guillermo Navarro’s photography renders foreboding even the northern evergreen woods through which crisp troops escort black touring cars bearing white Falange crests and the eleven-year-old and her frail pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil). The tailor’s widow later explains to her daughter that life is hard, its realities beyond a youngster’s understanding, for they go to join her officer husband Vidal (Sergi López) at the mountain mill commandeered to seek and destroy half-a-hundred Republican post-war guerrillas.

Commanding soldiers and feared Civil Guards, the spit-and-polish Vidal has issues about his own fallen-in-combat father and is as single-minded about ensuring the future of what he insists will be a son to bear his name, as about rooting out the irregulars. This martinet is no less cold and distant with his frightened stepdaughter than with the local women conscripted to serve the garrison as cooks and maids.

His orders to them go through Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who, like the doctor (Alex Angulo) entrusted with obstetric care, obviously has other sympathies and agendas. Erroneously considering herself a coward, she visits the “rebels” with information, foodstuffs, real tobacco and medicine pilfered by the good doctor, and she mothers the lonely Ofelia, who reads fairy tales and is also taken under the wing of a CGI mantis-like being that shrills and morphs into a winged sprite.

Magically, Ofelia is sent to place stones on the tongue of an enormous toad in the slimy hollow bowels of a tree. Retrieving a key from the amphibian’s regurgitated stomach, she is led back to the hidden center of a stone maze, where a tall foliage faun (Doug Jones) set her this first of three trials to see if she is worthy of being Princess Moanna. Though the child proves not always fully up to snuff, these tests of mettle will demonstrate her courage, self-control, willingness to obey and, finally, the value she places on life, and death, including her own.

Her adventures are neither so consecutive nor so blatant as that and are interleafed with much longer sections of the “real” hunter-and-hunted world of fascists and surviving loyalists. Differentiated, too, by color-tone gradations within an overall muted range, the coexistent universes are yet linked by themes of dead fathers and cruel stepfathers, mothers and maternal substitutes, bravery and belief. They share as well the claustrophobia, the holes and hidden doors, the human and animal horrors of folk tales, and, subliminally, their mystical numerology of three tests, stones, caskets and fairy creatures; the two paired keys and ritual knives, even Vidal’s robotic right hands Garces and Serrano (Manolo Solo and César Vea) and the stigmata-eyeball vision of the “pale man” (also Jones) which the director cavalierly joked away.

As a child Mercedes “believed in many things I no longer believe,” and her final tears show she does not get it, that only a child can grasp the two worlds, but even then Del Toro’s saccharine golden coda is too much. “Form,” as he remarked, “the images, an album of textures, is the grammar of the story, not titles or dialogue.” His aiming for bigger fish -- “you can tackle big issues without being Oliver Stone” -- comes up short and overblown, but Pan’s Labyrinth does “speak to the poetic and the brutal in man,” part angel part beast. 

(Released by Picturehouse and rated “R” for graphic violence and some language.)

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