It is not a surprise to learn that the Pan’s Labyrinth’s screenplay is an early draft of The Devil’s Backbone’s screenplay. Both have the same context (Spanish civil war) and the same aim: to depict fascism. Strangely, to that purpose Guillermo Del Toro will not use a dramatic construction. Instead, he will build an architecture of symbols through which the mise en scène enhances the power of evocation. Thus the following is less a review than an analysis of the peculiar style Del Toro applied to that achievement.
At first look, the movie seems to revolve around a confrontation between an innocent child and a monstrous military captain. But in truth, it represents a microcosm overwhelmed by fascism. The Devil’s Backbone was already laid on that structure. But in that case, through fantasy, Del Toro made a bunch of characters lost in an orphanage surrounded by the desert into a deep allegory of the world. A ghost was the core of this allegory. In Pan’s Labyrinth the title explicitly tells us that this time the fantasy will be embodied by Pan, the mythological figure. Nevertheless, we pass from ghost story to fairytale without any variation in the filmmaking style.
Then, this year, there is a big opportunity for a critic to compare Del Toro’s style improvement with another fantasy film using powerful symbolic expression: The Fountain. Indeed, in Aronofsky’s latest film, the look of the world in which the characters evolved seems like an emanation of their own perceptions. This is the classical tale of the knight fighting to serve his queen. The character played by Hugh Jackman is the Man and the one played by Rachel Weitz is the Woman. They are mythological figures. However, they convey a philosophical conception of death. To Izzy death is the traditional rebirth, to Tommy it is the ultimate negation. The rich Mayan iconography mirrors Izzy’s conception, while the coldness of the laboratory translates that of Tommy. The clash of those different cinematographic canvases increases the emotion resulting from the conflict between the characters. Hence, in the space that is the chaos of reconciliation, both Tommy and Izzy’s vision of death merge: the Tree of Life (Izzy) is contained within a glass spaceship (Tommy). But in the first place, despite this stylisation, Aronofsky shoots his characters to solicit their humanity, which is concentrated in their eyes, voices and bodies. In two words, the symbolic frame is just but a powerful mind’s illustration filmed in a realistic way.
Paradoxically, Del Toro conceived his film in a rather opposite perspective. In Pan’s Labyrinth everything becomes a symbol from the actor to the background set-up. Del Toro is an erudite creator to whom the images and icons of past ages are the manifold fragments of an occult and mystic Truth. In his point of view, directing a film is the art of putting together those fragments in a coherent discourse. Hence, in Pan’s Labyrinth a broken watch can speak to the viewer with the same power as the acting does. Del Toro’s filming transforms statue into actor and actor into statue, because the lineament of the image (in a painting or sculpture conception) and the meaning they convey are worthy of dramatic emotion. Watching a Del Toro movie is like penetrating into a great pyramid and reading the hieroglyphs through the moving shadows cast by a torch. Del Toro’s mise en scène process, rather than writing then applying spectacular cinema technique, is to write with symbols and icons. Akin to a writer, Del Toro must find the appropriate symbol as much for its meaning as for its beauty and assemble them into relevant and aesthetic cinematographic syntax.
This might sound like a boring way to make a movie, an intellectual way. Indeed, Del Toro’s style is that of an intellectual, but his subjects are those of an alchemist: lethal potions, ancient books, hourglass, subterranean worlds, labyrinth, mutations, monsters, evils and secrets. He shares a similar fascination for history and mythical inscriptions as Terry Gilliam, but less absurd and crazy and more mystic and solemn. The Pan’s Labyrinth ending echoes that of Brazil. In both there is no escape from reality but dreams and madness. Into his crucible Del Toro has mixed a plenty of ancient images (taken from books, paintings and films) and obtained a modern and melancholy conception of contemporary days still threatened by the shadow of fascism.
I’m stunned. Of the famed Three Amigos, aka Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, I’ve always considered the latter to be the goofier, lesser of this trio of Mexican filmmakers. Granted, I’d only seen his comic book movies (“Blade II”, “Hellboy”) until now, and when I watch the rest of his filmography (something I’m certain to do now) I might realize that his genius has been present along. But still, even his long-time fans seem to feel that “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a huge leap forward. Goofy third wheel? Hell no! Based on his latest picture alone, which is superior in every way to anything Iñárritu and Cuarón have made so far, del Toro is clearly the leader of the pack.
Jean Carlo already expressed better than I could the way del Toro uses mythology, symbols and icons to powerfully illustrate the horrors of fascism. In its perfect (yes, perfect) use of the cinematic medium to convey profound truths, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a masterpiece by any standards. But what makes it even more exceptional is that, as JC also pointed out, this is hardly a purely intellectual experience. Every frame of the film is full of what Robert Plutchik defined as primary emotions, be it anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, curiosity, acceptance or joy – though the latter is in short supply in the dark times depicted. To that end, the visuals work wonders but so do the actors, each and everyone flawless, from little princess Ivana Baquero to Ariadna Gil as her disheartened mother, Maribel Verdú and Álex Angulo as embodiements of the Resistance and Sergi Lopez as one of the most evil figures to ever grace the screen. And let’s not forget Doug Jones who, through amazing prosthetics and make-up, portrays Pan in a wholly otherworldly fashion.
You could say that “Pan’s Labyrinth” is like a cross between “Schindler’s List” and “The Wizard of Oz”, but the brutal realism of one and the mesmerizing fantasy of the other aren’t just thrown on top of one another, they’re perfectly (yes, perfectly) fused in a way that makes the real feel fantastic and the fantastic feel real. Like Jean Carlo, “The Fountain” was my favorite film of 2006, but even that wasn’t quite as fully achieved as del Toro’s film, which never ever hits a false note. Guillermo can go anywhere from here – I’ll never underestimate him again.