Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Cinema 2006: Cinematic Magical Realism
Grappling with both the necessity and absurdity of narrative, Pan's Labyrinth may very well be the standout film of 2006. Its backdrop—fascist Spain—is not so much a setting as it an an integral element of the story. Director Guillermo Del Toro's camera closely observes the experience of Ofelia, a young girl incapable of comprehending the horror around her but nonetheless possesses an intuitive understanding of the dehumanization that permeates her life and country. She flees into a world of imagination under the instruction of the mysterious faun, who tells Ofelia that she must perform a series of tasks so that she may claim her throne as princess of a fantasy world.
Pan's Labyrinth lures you in with its fantasy underpinnings and establishes a constrast with war-time reality. Del Toro carefully constructs each frame with care, marrying sound and image together to form a beautiful world of magical realism. His images allow the spectator fully into the childlike perspective of Ofelia, positioning you to hope that each imaginative adventure serves as a sufficient escape from the brutality of her step father, who also constructs his own reality based on fascist ideology. His reality, however, infests the social structures of the time, and, thus, he wields unmistakable power and influence over the people around him. Del Toro is so commanding of both the narrative and aesthetic, which is essential given the film's focus on the function of narrative in the interpretation of our perceptions of the world. Imagination is absurd in many ways, but it is wholly essential to grappling with experience. A stunning sequence near the beginning involving Ofelia talking to her unborn brother in her mother's womb illustrates this well, incorporates sublime, fantastical images in a free-flowing yet succinct manner. The images coupled with Javier Navarrete's ethereal, lullabye-esque music represent one of the film's key scenes.
Allegorical parallels abound, but Pan's Labyrinth is restrained in its presentation of details, capturing both magic and horror in equal amounts while balancing the story between a character based war drama and a fairy tale. Where most stories would take this setting at face value, Del Toro makes it a more prominent element of the story than the imaginative world into which Ofelia flees. He is very sparing in how he incorporates the fantasty aspects, and he is also treats them with darkness. Ofelia's world is not happy-go-lucky by any stretch; it is a strong reflection of how Ofelia views and participates in the reality of her own life. As the narrative progresses and we are exposed to the brutal reality of Ofelia's life, it is easy to understand her imaginative impulses as more than a trivial distraction from the goings on of the dehumanization around her. But Del Toro knows full well what he's doing and allows the proceedings to culminate in a climax so poignantly hopeful and bittersweet. It isn't until the film is over that you can really put together the pieces and discover what Del Toro is after, and yet the ultimate meaning is open to interpretation.
The similaraties and contrasts between the two worlds serve as an inquiry into not just national and personal ideology, but the reality of experience. Our experience with the world outside is mediated by the circumstances of our personal upbringing and exposure to social policy. Del Toro evokes this by building a brilliant narrative within these two worlds and never quite allowing the spectator to entirely be inside one without the other. Moreover, this simple contrast reveals itself to be much more complex than we might initially anticipate. In the end, no amount of praising metaphors or adjectives can contain just how beautifully simple yet dizzyingly complex Pan's Labyrinth is. It is a masterpiece.