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Pan's Backbone: Contrasting del Toro

My biggest complaint with Guillermo del Toro's new film, "Pan's Labyrinth," is in stark contrast to what pestered me about his 2001 film, "The Devil's Backbone." This is only interesting because both films otherwise have a lot in common, being set, as they are, around the time of the 20th-century Spanish Civil War and featuring scenes of both gritty realism and romantic fancy. But let's get the cart behind the horse, or as Ray Suarez might say, "Let's move the goat through the anaconda."

"Backbone" was a film of great atmosphere and suspense, but it relied unnecessarily on the supernatural, which mostly just got in the way of the bang-up revenge story that was at its core. Maybe del Toro was afraid of pinning his film on a simple revenge plot, but that doesn't explain why he would enter into the terrain of "Labyrinth," which is a case of an even simpler revenge story than "Backbone" getting in the way of the dark fantasy plot that really holds our interest and wants to be allowed to unfurl.

Maybe he has yet to strike the balance between realism and fantasy that he seems to be hunting for. I hope he finds it, but I also wouldn't be at all disappointed if he began making films in both the realistic and fantastic modes, keeping them separate but equal, as it were. He has a lot to say but is constantly undermining the likelihood of getting it said.

Let me lay out some concrete examples of trouble spots from "Labyrinth," things that I think prevent it from being the great film it could have been. Some of these points may seem minor, but they do tend to accumulate. I'll start with the chalk outline. The main character, Ofelia, is given special chalk by the faun at a couple of different points in the film. With this chalk she is able to draw doors on walls and so forth. The thing is, the chalk dissolves once a door is opened. Why, then, is another character in the film, Mercedes, able to see the chalk outline of a door in Ofelia's room near the end of the film? It's not at all clear.

Here's another one. Ofelia is on one of three tasks she must perform for the faun when she is forced to unlock one of three different locks with a magic key she has already obtained. The fairies that have so far been on her side in every way try their damnedest to persuade her to insert her key into the middle lock. She goes against them and unlocks the first lock instead, which turns out to be the right choice, for it houses the dagger she seeks. What's being said about her relationship with these mischievous fairies? Would any of the locks have revealed a serviceable dagger? Dunno, it's left unclarified.

While on that same task, Ofelia is faced with a sumptously laid table of meats and fruits. She has been warned by the faun not to taste anything on the table, but she cannot help herself. Despite the entreaties of her fickle fairy friends, she falls victim to the allure of the grapes. Why does she go against the faun's fervent warnings and the fairies' finger-wagging? I honestly couldn't say.

Late in the film there's yet another puzzling inconsistancy. The movie's most villainous human character is chasing Ofelia through the labyrinth, when suddenly it opens its walls to allow her passage into the center. Its walls close behind her, so when Ofelia's pursuer catches up, it's as if she's vanished into thin air. Fair enough. But why is he later seen wandering into the center of the labyrinth of his own accord? Or maybe the better question is, Why did the labyrinth have to open its walls to Ofelia instead of simply guiding her down the proper path?

And finally, a minor question about the fairies. Not just the ones that try to guide Ofelia's decision about the lock, but all fairies in the film. The first fairy she encounters is insect-like, and it adopts the more traditional fairy form only after Ofelia shows it a picture in a book. From that point on, all fairies appear as such. But it's never made clear why the fairies in Ofelia's vision of the future underworld are still of the traditional appearance.

Maybe a couple of these loose ends could be argued for. Perhaps the last point especially could be seen as a teasing ambiguity that keeps us from drawing too rigid a conclusion about Ofelia's fate and the veracity of her visions. But my beef is that such themes might have been given more room to develop had the fantastical elements of the film been given precedence over the Spanish Civil War plot that tends to dominate (and which I won't even bother to get into here).

There's eye candy in "Labyrinth," but there's also a great deal of bloodshed. No part of it is recommended for the weak stomached, for sure. But in the end, does it all come together the way a truly masterful piece of work should? I have to say no. But that del Toro has brought us so close to greatness says much about his potential and his art. He remains one of the most exciting directors to anticipate and one of the most difficult to unravel. My guess is that that's because he hasn't finished unraveling himself yet.--Pete Mesling


Posted by Pete on February 26, 2007 7:25 PM
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I'd like to try and answer these questions.

[ "The thing is, the chalk dissolves once a door is opened. Why, then, is another character in the film, Mercedes, able to see the chalk outline of a door in Ofelia's room near the end of the film? It's not at all clear." ]

The chalk dissolves on the door once Ofelia has returned and closes it. In the first incidence, the door which closes is on the floor, not the wall. If you look at the wall after the floor outline disappears, you will see that the chalk square remains where she left but did not return. This is true for the final door as well. Also note, in relationship to the bed, where each chalk door is seen.

[ "What's being said about her relationship with these mischievous fairies?" ]

Her own intuition tells her what is right, but her appetite moves her toward what is wrong. I think of the fairies and the book, both of which were pointing to the middle door, as the allegorical equivalent to public opinion and the printed press, but in the end it is the necessity of "Franco's bread" that overcomes all other considerations.

[ "The first fairy she encounters is insect-like, and it adopts the more traditional fairy form only after Ofelia shows him a picture in a book. From that point on, all fairies appear as such." ]

IMO, this is based on the ideas behind the allegory: divine spirit takes on mortality and forgets its original divinity. A way must be found to lead the spirit back to it's source. Traditionally, the guide at the start of that return must first be recognized by the mortal in order to be understood and trusted. Then the source of that guide shows the "tests", or hero's journey, that must be made in order to return. Because the Princess may have found her way back at any other time in history, the guide might have been an Aztec warrior, an angel, or, for Ofelia, a fairy.

[ "But it's never made clear why the fairies in Ofelia's vision of the future underworld are still of the traditional appearance." ]

I think this is just a practical consideration of telling the story. How much audience confusion would there have been if, in the final minute of the film, all the symbols which had been in play throughout the entire story were suddenly changed?

[ "But my beef is that such themes might have been given more room to develop had the fantastical elements of the film been given precedence over the Spanish Civil War plot that tends to dominate (and which I won't even bother to get into here)." ]

If they had, and the Civil War plot had receded in importance, would you still have "forgotten" the original story of the Lost Princess in your immersion into the World of Men? I believe the conflict was there in order to "blind" us to the possibility that Ofelia's world might be true. Del Toro has us experience the allegory first-hand.

-- Posted by: Foster Blake at February 27, 2007 9:52 AM

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Foster. This would seem to support the idea that "Pan's Labyrinth" leaves us with much to chew on.

-- Posted by: Pete at February 27, 2007 1:02 PM

Foster did an excellent job of explaining most of the points questioned in the article. I just wanted to say with regards to why Ofelia ate the grapes at the feast. It again shows how we can all fall to temptation and give in to desires, without thinking of the ramifications at the time. If you want to break it down even more simply, you might recall that Ofelia had been sent to bed without supper that evening by her mother. That might not seem like a big deal right now in our society, but back then during the war when food was scarce, being sent to bed without supper and encountering a magnificent feast would have tempted anyone.

-- Posted by: Nicole at February 28, 2007 9:54 AM

Nicole, your justification for the feast scene may be a bit of a reach, but okay. We're all about diversity of opinion here at Fearfodder. Unless it's the opinion of Uwe Boll or Roger Ebert.

-- Posted by: Pete at February 28, 2007 2:14 PM

I enjoyed the article and the posts in response to it. I even enjoyed the film.

My disappointment with it mostly stems from choice with character point of view. I would have been more entertained, more entrenched, had the film focused on Opelia's point of view instead of jumping into the point of view of the other characters. I wanted Opelia present in some of the darker scenes, the torturing of the soldier, the pointless murdering of the father and son, the wounded soldiers in the camp, even if during those scenes she put herself in her own world by doing her own thing. This would have forced Opelia to deal with the fantasy world in a whole new way and better allowed the director to thoroughly weave the starkly real war plot with the fantastical plight of Opelia and the fairies.

I understand why the director might have chosen to keep the two worlds completely separate. Opelia lives in her own world while the adult world, which no longer believes in fairy tales continues to wage its own war. But those few scenes where the two intertwine have great impact! For example, the scene with the mother burning her own cure in the Mandrake root. I want more!

It would seem the director and writer deliberately chose to shield Opelia from such atrocities - to isolate her from that world in its most base sense – maybe, to allow those few scenes to have even more potency. However, I think it could have been done to even more dramatic effect had the director chosen to stick with Opelia’s viewpoint throughout the story.

Despite my problems with the film, I recognize a daring and interesting achievement. No doubt the attempt to blend the two worlds together is difficult. Even in the trying the story makes for an interesting journey.

-- Posted by: Nicholas at June 20, 2007 12:42 PM

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