Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth. . . do you need to see it?

I know this isn't Monday. . . and we had proposed offering movie reviews occasionally on Mondays. . . but sometimes you have to take the plunge. So, I'm starting off with "Pan's Labyrinth," a movie lauded and honored on at least three continents and widely held to be one of the best movies of the year.

Here's my take:

Set in the waning days of 1944, after the fascist takeover of Spain in a bloody civil war, the story of Pan's Labyrinth is both gripping and unusual. It was also something of a let-down for me. I wanted fantasy and got. . . a little too much reality.

The fairy tale begins in the mists of time. . . with a narrator speaking of a mythical subterranean kingdom where there was no war, no hunger, and no evil. There was, however, a king's daughter with a tragic amount of curiosity about the world above and something called "blue sky." She made her way to the surface, was lost, and forever separated from her beloved kingdom. Someday, the folk tale declares, she will return.

Enter our little heroine, whose father was killed in the civil war and whose desperate mother succumbed to the proposal of a brutal army captain. Married and pregnant, she and her 10 year old daughter journey to join him at a mountainous outpost where the captain is tasked with hunting down rebels hiding in the hills. As she arrives, the young girl is fascinated by a mantis-like insect, thinking it is a fairy. Following it, she discovers an ancient pagan labyrinth presided over by a "faun" called Pan. . . who tells her she is the missing princess from the underworld and offers her a chance to prove it and return to her kingdom.

Three tasks ensue and, of course, she fails one by being a curious and hungry child. Meanwhile in the real world, her cruel and sadistic step father is killing and torturing locals and captives and menacing her very pregnant mother. His brutality is portrayed fully and gruesomely. . . clearly for impact. A showdown builds between the girl's other-worldliness and the step-father's vicious grasp on her world. When the mother dies in childbirth, the girl has no more protection and in the climax. . . well, let me just say a new beginning requires an ending. And the girl is accepted into the idyllic kingdom she once abandoned for earth.

Visually fascinating, visceral in its brutality, and unstinting in going where the story needs to go. . . it's a fascinating blend of grim and fanciful. But is it Oscar quality? Is it, as some critics claim, the best movie of the year? Your mileage may vary, but for me, no.

I suppose I expected more fantasy, even after reading the reviews. But most of the action and screen time is spent in the brutal and difficult present. And the fantasy that draws the little girl from her world is every bit as ugly and menacing as her real world life at the army outpost. I kept feeling the movie was a statement about the cruelty of our world, or something. . . but it wasn't very clear. The ending may tempt you to draw the conclusion that good will triumph. . . but if so, you have to concede that it triumphs at a monstrous cost.

I left the theater thinking about the story and we discussed it over dinner afterward. Three weeks later, I'm still not quite sure what it was all about and am curiously ambivalent about the movie. Not my favorite feeling.

Part of my ambivalence deals with the amount and kind of violence shown. . . clearly intended to make a point. But what point? That we humans are capable of great horrors? We know that. The director seems to slow the story at times to make us squirm at what humans are capable of. And yet, there are valiant and heroic humans, loving and courageous humans. . . who ultimately win this battle. . . but not before the price is paid. And the ending. . . the little girl returns to her kingdom a beloved princess. . . happy and welcomed. . . is that supposed to tell us that all will work to the good? That even evil can be used in the service of destiny? That the truth of love is sacrifice. That we mustn't be discouraged by the terrors of this world?

Still not sure folks. Oh, and though it's a fairy tale with a ten-year-old heroine, this is NOT something children should see. The creations of Del Toro's mind are enough to give me the willies. I can just imagine what they would do to an impressionable child.

For the art, I'd give it a 9.5 or 10 out of 10. But for enjoyment, I'd give it a 6. And if that makes me a plebeian, so be it.

Anybody else see Pan's? What did you think? Come on, enlighten me. Please.


Helen Brenna said...

Betina, I haven't seen it and it sounds fascinating but for the gruesome violence. I have to admit, the older I get, the less I can tolerate in that arena.

I actually left the theater in the middle of King Kong. Couldn't stand how over the top they took that story.

Sounds like I might have to pass on this one.

Debra Dixon said...

Betina-- I haven't seen it yet for exactly the reasons you've mentioned. I'm not in the mood for an ambiguous film. My first reaction was "oh what a beautifully-shot fantasy! Can't wait!"

And then the reviews began to come in and I realized the film was not at all what I thought and began to back away from my enthusiasm.

I'm sure I will at least see it when it hits NetFlix, but I'm not sure I want to toddle to the theater to see it!

Betina Krahn said...

I think this may be one of those movies for the real "cinema" people. The artistes among us.

And I don't mean that to sound surly or envious or patronizing. People who enjoy the artistic development of films and like to explore the boundaries would probably love this movie. There is a lot of boundary-pushing and the line between real and fantasy is totally obscured. An artfully made movie.

But my feeling is that it appeals far more to Hollywood-genre-jaded critics and people who appreciate the technicality and seamlessness of the achievement. For people who love a good story and mostly go to films to be entertained, it's a bit much.

Also. . . the line on the poster about innocence overcoming evil. . . hmmm. If that's supposed to be the theme, I'm still left cold. Because in my lexicon innocence is really just lack of exposure, lack of wisdom, lack of experience. And, honey, none of those things is likely to help you if you're confronting true evil.

It takes a lot more than a wide-eyed ten-year-old to confront and defeat fascist cruelty. At the end of the movie it is LOVE and COURAGE that make a difference in the world, not innocence.

So, I'm still left wondering and wishing I could sit down for a heart-to-heart with the director and the writer!

:) Betina

Michele said...

Betina, I blogged about this last week, and I feel exactly the same as you do. Was it worth it? What was I supposed to come away from the theater with? I just didn't get it.

This is my take. At the beginning, during the narration, I took it to mean that the princess came from a netherworld, and to me that was Hell. So when the Pan was trying to tempt her to rescue his kingdom, I was thinking 'he wants her to open up Hell'.
And her adventures were Hellish, so that worked for me.
And in the end, innocence sacrificed, and yet, the brutal soldier (whom I viewed as the King of Hell) walked out of the labyrinth with the Prince of Hell, the baby, because innocents' blood had spilled into their realm.
Now, that's how I understood it, but trust me, things like plot points can whoosh over my head fairly easily. So while that's my interpretation, I don't think it's exactly right.

As for how the faery tale stuff meshed with the real world, I didn't get that at all. Seemed like two different movies to me, and I sorely wanted much more of the fantasy. Enough of the torture stuff. I had read enough reviews, though, to know to look away when I sensed a torture scene coming on.

What was the purpose of the girl's quest in relation to the real-life stuff going on? I need to know!

And yes, what did the director want us to take away from this flick?

Sure, it was visually stunning, but I too, do not see where the award-winning stuff comes into play.

Sigh... I love movies that make a person think and ask questions, but this one was too much. It hurt my brain a little bit, and I'm getting a headache now just thinking about it.


Michele said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michele said...

Oops, sorry, posted twice! I did want to add...at the very end when the princess is 'wherever the kingdom is', (which I expected to be Hell), but it obviously wasn't, that's when I think I could have screamed, because during the whole movie I was believing one thing, then it didn't mesh for the final shot. Aggh!

Christie Ridgway said...

The twenty-something sons of my neighbor looooved it. They've each seen it twice and are big film/game guys. My friend (a woman of my age) saw it and was disturbed by the violence.

I'm not sure if I'm going to see it, but my curiosity is getting stronger, Betina.