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.


Jo Custer said...

"Del Toro is so commanding of the narrative with stylistic devices he employs to execute it. And he needs to be, given that the film is about the function of narrative in our interpretation of our perceptions of the world. Imagination is absurd in many ways, but it is wholly essential to grappling with experience."

Good capturing, although I would amend it only somewhat to say that the story allows us to see narrrative's function in our interpretations...and, actually, a comparison of what really sets Alice in Wonderland and Pan's Labyrinth apart in that sense would prove pretty fruitful, I imagine...I felt that this was a coming-of-age film primarily, and that Del Toro used the violent turmoil of Franco's Spain as the metaphor for his major allegory of that awakening...which made so much sense to me, to use that ideological rupture as a figurative lens for growing up.

You make some great observations in here!

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, Johanna! I think the coming of age angle is interesting, especially in relation to ideology, which we both acknowledged to be so crucial to the narrative.

It's just amazing to me how Del Toro balances the two worlds and forms such a strong identification with Ofelia. Her fate (as shown in the end of the film) is beautifully made visible as a melding of the two worlds he seems to be dancing between throughout the film, which is the ultimate statement of the film's theme of perspective and interpreting experience.

Jo Custer said...

I felt similarly -- you'd almost think that Del Toro had been a little girl once. I'm assuming that he did something special, really researching and delving into the mythos surrounding that age...I'd love to read an interview with him where he talks about that.

I'll have to keep looking... This is probably the most exciting film I've seen in years, it spoke to me on such a personal and cerebral level simultaneously.

Anil Usumezbas said...

I would love to see how you compare this to The Fall which opens in United States soon. I liked it more than Pan's Labyrinth but somehow I doubt that you'll agree :)

If you have the chance to see it, maybe we'll have more discussions in the future.