So many questions came to mind during my screening of this film...
Question #1.... What is this movie about?
I had no idea going in. I thought it was a Mexican fairytale. It isn't. It isn't quite a fantasy story because half of it is dripping in brutal realistic violence. So, genre-wise, this film is half child's fantasy and half R-rated period war drama.
Pan's Labyrinth is the story of a lost princess from the underworld who has been apparently reincarnated several times as a human until she is finally reborn into a little girl, Ofelia, who lives in Spain at the end of the Civil War. Blood, blood, blodd. Ofelia's God of the underworld father has finally found her and for a reason that is never really explained, now needs her to complete some tasks before he takes her back to the underworld. Ofelia's task is complicated by the fact that her human mother has married the worst most evil man on the planet, who happens to be a Captain on the Nationalist side of the War. And one of his friends is a complacent priest. Torture, murder, abuse. One of Franco's minions, the captain spends the whole movie killing and torturing and abusing everybody else. Pretty much everybody dies. The movie sets up a group of perfectly pure and good leftist guerillas with whom Ofelia develops a connection. Ofelia is sent on two terrifying and repulsive quests, until she is challenged to give her life to save her baby brother. And at the end, the good forces of marxism conquer the evil forces of Franco (and the Church!). But Ofelia doesn't live happily ever after, exactly.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have a movie set during the Spanish Civil War that seems like it is going ahead. I tried to be fair in my movie showing evil on both sides of the conflict. I suppose that knowing the truth about the period probably ruined my enjoyment of Pan's Labyrinth which requires you to just go with the notion that all virtue in the struggle was on one side.
So, know that Pan's Labyrinth is at one level a two hour leftist political fantasy. (I'm not sure what it is at the other level.) If you can't find it playing near you, go rent a copy of Eisenstein's October for a similar,and certainly more coherent rush.
Question #2....Please, somebody tell me, what is all the raving about? Let's be serious for a moment and look at this film for what it is. Really, not that good.
The principle strength of the film is the look of it. Some of the frames were quite interesting. I wouldn't say beautiful, but definitely interestingly composed. With the possible exception of the labyrinth itself there was almost no symbolic imagery in the film, so you don't get the added points of depth of meaning to make the images resonate even more. And if the labyrinth was supposed to be an image - it seems too contrived an object not to be - then it was startlingly UNdeveloped in the story.
Another comment about the look of the film was what I like to call really well-drawn visual ugliness. I found this to be true in the LOTR movies too. You know, that's where the orcs look really, really disgusting? Well, Pan's has lots of that kind of thing in the fantasy sequences. In fact, all of the fantasy moments are outstanding in their effective realization of repulsiveness. So, the film gets points for good-looking gruesomeness....if that's your thing. Not sure it's Jesus'. Have to check...
Pan's two stories are a mess. Even understanding that it is half-fantasy film (and half starry-eyed leftist romanticism), thiings happen not by necessity but because the storyteller needs them to happen. The inciting incident happens as a damn coincidence in which Ofelia's mother JUST HAPPENS" to get sick and stop the car on the side of the road near which one of the underworld fairies JUST HAPPENS to be waiting. And then Ofelia JUST HAPPENS to step on some kid of magic stone. And while her adult escort JUST HAPPENS to be distracted ends up JUST HAPPENING to stumble over the magic obelisk in the woods.
Several of the principle "plot points" (and I use the term loosely, but this is a European/foreign film - Spain/Mexico - so we are supposed to be grateful if there are ANY discernible plot points...) had me slapping my forehead saying, "Oh please." The A-story, being the fantasy stuff, bears no necessary relationship to the B-story, that is, the political propaganda story. That kind of disconnect is usually the definition of bad, agenda-driven storytelling. But for some reason, the critics are giving this film a pass on the limits of its narrative.
Then, there is the BIZARRE mixing of genres which, also, everybody usually agrees defines a narrative mess. When I heard that this film was "fresh," I didn't realize "fresh" here meant mixing fauns and fairies and little girl's humming lullabyes with close ups of torture and gun shots to the head and, lots of one-sided leftist romanticizing. Talk about "one of these things is not like the others"! This whole film is a clinic in narrative and thematic confusion...and agenda driven filmmaking.
Let's keep going on the technical problems.
The script, even apart from the story being a mess, was a few limps shy of being purely pedestrian. The dialogue was banal. There were no real clever moments. There were no paradoxical choices. There was nothing insightful in the theme. The theme here seems to be "People who aren't us (we're leftists) are evil." Not exactly universally compelling. More like the stuff for which I am always nailing Christian films. Only, you know, rightwards.
Pan's characters are developed according to the easiest most cliched methods starting with "the audience will like her because she is a cute, innocent looking little girl" to "let's establish the villain by having him shoot somebody in cold blood as a lark." The characters make choice after unmotivated choice, starting with the little girl lead who does some incrediblely un-little girlish things which I never bought. Just because she reads a lot of books we're supposed to conclude that she doesn't mind golfball size maggots crawling all over her? Uh-huh.
The actors were poorly directed. Unless of course, your model for acting is "1920's Soviet valentines to socialism" films. I thought to myself as I was watching, "Hmmm, the last time I saw this much earnest purity on the good guy side, and hypocritical cruelty on the bad guy side was when they made us watch all those boring Soviet propaganda films in film school." (Heck. And I thought watching those films was a waste...)
I could go on, but what's the use? People seem to have decided to laud this silly, easy film as brilliant, with all of its problems being called "fresh". It ain't fresh. It's "important"!!!
Question #3... Did Spain learn NOTHING at all from its tragic, terrible, hellish Civil War?
The answer, from watching Pan's Labyrinth is an emphatic "No." Sixty years later, this film sets the clock back to one-sided pillorying of the other side. Portrayals of "the other guys" as corrupt, barbaric, hypocritical, conniving and without the least humanizing quality is what got Spain into the Civil War in the first place. And then, the film borrows completely from the leftist mythology which is getting replayed in Spain today that the Church was in sympathy with Franco's attrocities.
My thinking is, it's never going to help a social debate to put all evil on the other guy's side. America is wallowing in radical polarization because it's been 150 years since we ended up killing each other in Civiil War. Spain has really no excuse for this kind of short-term memory lapse.
Question #4... Is it that Europeans can't tell a coherent narrative, or that they won't?
Hollywood takes its cue in narrative principles from Aristotle. Europe, in rebelling against Hollywood-style filmmaking, has had to rebel against Aristotle's Poetics. This is bad for their movies.
I sat there watching Pan's ridiculous lurching around from one story to the other without any attention to what the audience needs in storytelling, and wondered how it was that the folks who produced some of the greatest novelists ever, can't seem to pull off a begining, middle and end connected by necessity.
I'm thinking that after centuries of Aesop and Brothers Grimm and national folk tales and Arthurian legends, the Europeans are just plain old sick of a good story. And how's that working for you, Old World?
Question #5... Why are so many Americans raving about this film? (and the corollary) Why are so many Christian Americans raving about this film?
Americans are raving about this film because its leftist message puts in in that genre of "important" film. If a film is "important" in Hollywood, then all of its technical sins are forgiven. Americans are also raving about this film because Hollywood has a deep-seated inferiority complex towards Europeans, that they know about art and we don't. So, when a European makes a halfway coherent story (and Pan's is definitely coherent. It's just puerile...) the Los Angeles film industry falls allover itself to be on the side of "brave" "amazing" "artistic vision." The fact that the movie is kind of, um, dull, mustn't be spoken.
And the Christians? I dunno. Maybe it's that longing to be hip thing? Jump on the edgy-bandwagon when we can syndrome? Christian critics are giving it a pass because it's got a "new" look, even though that newness is the old definition of bad filmmaking in Hollywood. And even despite the fact that the film caricatures and scapegoats the humans who are serving as villains. And even though the film uses graphic, desensitizing brutality. And even though the film takes an unfair swipe at the Church. And even though the strongest point in the film is in making some really ugly creatures. And even though there really isn't that much here, here in terms of ideas.
One Christian friend told me the film was "a really bold, different creative vision." Yeah, but Xanadu was "bold and different too.
Question #6....Should people see this film?
It depends. Do you care about seeing a movie that is an gross mythology of one of the most tragic Wars in the 20th Century? You will see a whole bunch of people shot in the head. You will see several people bloodied by torture. You will see a child shot in the stomach. You will see a woman shove a knife in a man's mouth and then slash his face in half. You will see a piles of bloody rags from a woman dying in childbirth.
As all the critics are saying, "It's magical!"
Hah! Pass. And say a prayer for Spain.