Sunday, 18 March 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth

In November last year I saw a special preview of Pan's Labyrinth at the NFT, and now here it is on DVD, just a week after losing out on the 'Best Foreign Film' title at the Oscars. Personally I never thought it should have been entered into that category anyway - it should have been nominated for 'Best Film', period.

One of my favourite films of the last twelve months, it has been interesting to revisit 'Labyrinth' in this inaugural DVD edition, released to UK stores last Monday, and available either as a two-disc special edition, or as a single disc edition in a boxed set that includes two of writer/director Guillermo del Toro's previous foreign language films Cronos and The Devil's Backbone.

This review is based on the two-disc single-title edition, but a review of the boxed set may well follow at a future date. The word 'masterpiece' is an oft-overused one, but I think the word applies here. Watching the film several months on, I'm more impressed than ever with how well the film has been executed. This is a movie that stands up to repeated viewings, and there are touches so subtle you need repeat viewings to pick up on them.

Ivana Baquero is the young girl at the heart of the story told in Pan's Labyrinth

The film tells two parallel stories: one set in the harsh, brutal real world of Franco's post war era of Spain, the other in the innocent, fantasy world of fairy tales. The common thread through these two disparate worlds is Ofelia, a young girl uprooted from her home to go and live in a military outpost that is run by her new stepfather. Her mother is having a difficult pregnancy, and the stepfather turns out to be a cruel, brutal, sadistic brute seemingly only tolerating Ofelia and her mother because of the possibility of having a son.

Ofelia finds some escape from the horrors of war and life with the outpost captain in the world of 'The Faun's Labyrinth', where she meets a centuries old faun who sets her three tasks to complete if she is to escape the real world to return to her rightful place as princess of loving parents in the underworld.

The fantastical elements of the film are mixed with the real elements through clever use of lighting, colour and symbolism (one world features very round objects, the other the harsh, straight lines of the stepfather's orderly world that indicate him to be obsessive-compulsive, if not outright psychotic).

Early pictures and some of the screen caps here may give the impression that this is an 'Alice in Wonderland' -like fairytale, suitable for children. Make no mistakes - it isn't. This is a fairy tale for adults, with violence and brutality levels set accordingly. Children who have parents stupid enough to let them watch it are likely to be wetting their beds for months to come!

The faun is the first magical creature our heroin meets, but is he good or evil?

The film is multi-layered, with enough here to keep film students busy for months. The CGI work is seamless, the prosthetics well executed, and the fantasy elements beautifully depicted - all the more impressive given the relatively low budget the film has. The cast are uniformly excellent, so what's not to like?

Some have criticised the story for not being clear enough in identifying whether the fantasy world is real, or just Ofelia's imagination working overtime so that she can momentarily escape the nightmare that is her life in the real world. It seems ambiguity isn't as popular as it should be. del Toro seems convinced that the fantasy elements are real, pointing out (in one of the accompanying extra's) the clue he has planted to show a scene taking place in the real world that could not have happened if the fantasy world were mere imagination. It's subtle little tricks like this that make the film so rewarding on repeat viewings.

Sergi Lopez plays the handsome, but evil and sadistic Captain Vidal

The narrative strands of the fantasy world have received criticism too. At the risk of giving away the ending, it can be argued that strictly speaking the girl fails the three tasks she has been set and yet manages to reap the rewards as if she had passed. She ignores repeated instructions twice on one task, taking contrary actions that ultimately result in her three fairy guides being devoured and her at risk for her life. del Toro's point here is that the whole point of the tasks is not about blindly following instructions, but making mistakes and learning to live with them. The film is essentially about refusing to give up when all seems lost (in both the real world and the fantasy world), and it's a lesson that's beautifully told here.

If there was one thing that disappointed me about the original film, it was the dark and murky quality of the print. Thankfully much of that has been rectified on the DVD transfer. The film is a dark one, with little detail in the shadows and quite a bit of bloom and dark blacks. The colour and light design, exaggerated to differentiate between the two worlds of reality and fantasy, mean that the film stock appears to have been processed to hell and back, losing subtle detail that a good home cinema system might reveal. But given these basic limitations of the source material, the transfer is a gorgeous one and one doubts it has ever been better presented on film.

He may have no eyes, but he eats babies, good fairies (no, not me, you fool!) and little girls. If you're foolish enough to take some food from the table he may suddenly develop sight.

The main disk features a lively and informative fact-filled commentary track from the director. The only disappointment is that del Toro's usual self-deprecating sense of humour that has often turned his Q&A sessions into a one man stand-up comedy act isn't much in evidence. The second disc contains several good featurettes made during the original production and then after the production has completed. These mostly concentrate on the effects and prosthetics, or on explanatory interviews about the characters, the story or the production process with the director.

The Q&A session at the NFT, which I attended in person, is also included, although very badly presented, with jump cuts where film clips originally appeared, a static camera throughout, and no introduction so that one is never made aware that the interviewer on stage with del Toro is Mark Kermode.

I think there's just about enough here to justify a second disk, but it's a bit of a close call. What's missing is any input from the cast. Given comments made by the various effects and prosthetics personnel one gets the sense that beneath the 'cuddly' persona del Toro wheels out for public display is a rather large ego, and a perfectionist who doesn't suffer fools (or actors who don't quite understand his vision?) gladly. It seems odd when so many other details of the production are covered so well that the cast should be almost entirely absent from these extra features.

Pan's Labyrinth is a wonderful, and original film. Its sub-titled foreign language has apparently stopped people putting their bums on seats in the cinema's - their loss! If you're a fan of adventurous, leading edge cinema with the ability to transport you to a different time and place, then you can't afford to miss this. And given its subtleties and strengths that stand up to repeated viewings this is most definitely a purchase, rather than a rental. Very, very highly recommended!

The film makes good use of CGI, without over-doing it or allowing you to spot 'the dodgy effects'

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