Monsters in the maze

Finally! Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, praised to the skies internationally, has arrived in South Africa at last. Many fans of such superior fantasy will have resorted to parallel-import DVDs already, but Del Toro’s masterpiece can now be seen on the big screen — which is where it deserves to be seen at least once.

Actually, since its premiere at Cannes in May last year, Pan’s Labyrinth has been slowly and steadily rolling out around the world, making a circuit of the relevant festivals and reaching multiplex screens in Britain and the United States late last year. Pity the Japanese, who only get it in September.

Del Toro is a distinctly original talent, though he seems to have some DNA from both David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam. He has put a personal twist on the supernatural tale in his vampire movie Cronos and his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, as well as proving his usefulness in the more conventional genre realm with the mega-hits Blade II and Hellboy, both based on comic books and powered by a sublime visual sensibility to enrich their stock storylines.

When Del Toro gets personal, though, and makes a film such as Pan’s Labyrinth, that visual genius is embedded in narratives that ponder issues of good and evil more deeply. Amazingly, Del Toro can actually do something fresh with the old good-versus-evil theme — perhaps the most meaningless theme of them all, one that can be applied in any manner possible.

Del Toro’s sense of good and evil is clearly political. He locates this battle at a very specific historical moment: like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth is set during the Spanish Civil War. Well, it’s set just as the war is ending. The fascists have triumphed, but there is still determined resistance in the mountains, where a fascist commander is setting up a base from which he hopes to root out the resistance, using whatever means necessary.

This Capitán Vidal (Sergi López) has insisted that his heavily pregnant wife join him in this redoubt — a son must be born where his father is, he tells the doubting doctor. He cares less about his wife’s daughter by her previous marriage, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who doesn’t particularly want a new father anyway, or to be in this war zone. But soon after arrival there she finds a portal to a mysterious other world: the labyrinth of the title.

Pan is played by Doug Jones, who seems to be specialising in the kind of role in which you can’t actually see the actor: the fish guy in Hellboy, the Silver Surfer in the second Fantastic Four movie (now on circuit), and in Pan’s Laby­rinth both the faun and another monstrous creature, the Pale Man. What next? The Invisible Man?

In Pan’s Labyrinth, at least, the mime-trained Jones is not just a phantom to be CGI’d over later. The film as a whole, in fact, is free of computer-generated imagery; rather, it is a meticulous studio construction, in which all the mise-en-scène and the wonderfully detailed creatures have been made by hand.

This is an old-fashioned kind of fantasy, relying on visual richness rather than whiz-bang effects, and its visual power alone works beautifully to draw one in, as Ofelia is drawn in, to a magical world that parallels but comments on the “real” world. She is a child, and part of the strength of Pan’s Labyrinth is to give us a child’s-eye perspective, a view from which fairy tales are still believable — but this is not a children’s movie. Unlike much mainstream cinema, which uses disguised fantasy to treat us like children, Pan’s Labyrinth uses overt fantasy to see evil through the eyes of innocence.

One is reminded that the word “amazed”, as apparently coined by John Milton in the late 1600s, grows from the idea of being lost in a maze. Now it simply means something like surprised. Pan’s Labyrinth is amazing in both senses.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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