Guillermo del Toro's stylistic new Labyrinth

By Jesse Sawyer

Guillermo del Toro’s
“Laberinto del Fauno” (English title: Pan’s Labyrinth) opens with
the shot of a young girl, face horizontal against an anonymous gray
stone, blood trickling from her mouth, life flickering out from
behind her wide, innocent eyes. This introductory shot succinctly
sums up all that follows it in the film. It is a film of lost
innocence, trauma, and, ultimately, death. The plot involves a
twofold depiction of this young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), as she
struggles with demons real and fantastic, with del Toro pitting her
against the sadistic Fascist Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez) as well as
terrifying creatures from another nightmare realm, such as the
child-devouring “Pale Man” with eyes in the palms of his hands.

The interplay between
the two realms is what is most crucial here. The fantasy realm,
brilliantly depicted through a technically-advanced mix of CGI (which
I usually abhor) and traditional means, is an escape from the harsh
reality of Ofelia’s situation, one in which the dregs of the Spanish
Civil War mix with the toxic suffocation of step-father Vidal’s
violent choke-hold on daily life in the encampment.

In this regard, the
film reminds me of graphic novelist Alan Moore’s recent magnum opus,
Lost Girls. The central conceit of this work is that the female
protagonists from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan,” and “Alice
in Wonderland” meet in an Austrian hotel long after their
adolescences, during which time they recount their familiar tales
with the unfamiliar twist of unbridled, graphic sexuality.

This
reconceptualization of traditional children’s’ fables does
something powerful to the way in which we read them. Lost Girls has
themes of sexual liberation and emancipation from moral codes, but it
also contains a disturbing edge involving incest, child sexuality,
and trauma. The fairy tales as we know them, then, are recast as
tools through which to neutralize these traumas, the loss of youth,
the steady path away from that Wordsworthian point of purity from
whence we come.

In “Laberinto del
Fauno,” Ofelia’s fantasy world becomes, to her, more real than the
terribly violent occurrences that surround her. The tasks she is
charged with accomplishing through her interlocutor, Pan, function as
a way of giving her an agency that she lacks in the everyday world.

While in reality, her pregnant mother is worsening in condition with
a painful and potentially deadly delivery approaching, in the
fantastic realm, the use of a mangrove root, milk, and a few drops of
blood can save both mother and child.

The film’s visuals are
truly stunning. While not nearly as gory as some reviewers have made
it out to be, the blood, when used, is used to legitimately affecting
results. The horrors of war and the ruthless inhumanity of torture
are portrayed with equal aplomb, and while the film is far less of a
political fable than, say, “Children of Men” (whose director,
Alfonso Cuarón, serves as friend and co-producer to del Toro),
its portrayal of repressive violence maintains a political ideal that
applies across time and situation.

Another critical
misuse of the film is the continued evaluation of the film as a part
of the horror-film pantheon. Del Toro has certainly made waves in
this pond with previous films, but it would be erroneous to consider
“Laberinto” a part of this category. While it does contain an
homage to Kubrick’s “The Shining” and certainly uses suspense at
times, the film is simply not scary. Del Toro isn’t interested
in making the audience jump in their seats. His characters aren’t
being unexpectedly killed off by an unknown force. Rather, their
day-to-day existence is one in which violence is expected. The terror
comes from the dread that escape is increasingly impossible, even as
the soul deteriorates each day.

“Laberinto del
Fauno” has been greeted with what metacritic.com rightly
categorizes as “universal acclaim.” It will likely win Best
Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. The reviews it has
received have been glowing, with those two buzzwords, “genius”
and “masterpiece” typed across the blogosphere with reckless
abandon. I’m not about to refuse the film a positive review. It’s a
high-quality film. However, I’m not ready to call it a masterpiece.

For one thing, while the visual rhymes that link elements of the
fantastic with their real-world counterparts indicate a masterful
filmmaking sense, there is yet more that can be done with a conceit
such as “Laberinto’s.” Calling the film a masterpiece fails to
take into account the fact that del Toro can likely do even
better. I, for one, left the film impressed by the power of its
riveting final third, but unconvinced that the film was as fully
realized as it could have been in the front end of its unfolding
fable.

The film is most
successful with critics and audiences alike because it feels like a
unique vision. And it is. Guillermo del Toro has constructed a film
whose look and feel are distinctly his own. And yet, I still feel
there is more to be mined here. Lost Girls, a sixteen-year project
that eventually filled three thick volumes, is rightfully discussed
as a masterwork in the oeuvre of Alan Moore. It brilliantly
extrapolates from familiar tales of comfort and fantasy to the
traumatically real kernel around which they have been built,
renegotiating that which they had been built to negotiate on our
behalf in a way that is at once liberating and unsettling. “Laberinto
del Fauno” attempts a similar aesthetic project, and yet I cannot
justify discussing it as a masterpiece on the same level. Guillermo
del Toro may be on the forefront of a burgeoning Mexican film
explosion, but, to this reviewer at least, it may be time he took off
the kid gloves.