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We headed out to the theater tonight and saw Pan’s Labyrinth, a fantasy movie filmed by a Mexican company (English subtitles) with a dark adult theme.
I thought I would write as best a review I could for those interested. In the top of the post, I’ll talk about things that will not spoil the movie, and might even make it more interesting for those of you who want to go see it. After the click, I’ll get real specific.
First and foremost I’ll warn you, the movie is very dark. Set in Spain during WWII during the regime of Franco, the victorious fascist government is still fighting bands of rebels in the mountains. Some of the monsters in this movie are fantastic…and some human. There are quite a few scenes I had to turn away, and though I’m not known for my strong stomach, I can mostly watch a movie like Gladiator without flinching now. I think it was the intimacy of the violence which hit me. So beware.
That said, this is not a horror flick, just one set somewhere between a bloody civil war and a world existing just beyond our own. Whether that fantasy is imagined or real, you will have to decide for yourself. I know what I prefer to believe.
My husband and I agree, the pacing could have been better, though he says he’s not sure how this story could have gotten told with standard Hollywood-style plot movement and still reach its ending. But its well-built and interwoven narrative will keep you interested, and there are believable moments of tension. And some fantastic moments as promised.
Pan’s Labyrinth spends as much time, or maybe more so, in the real world of WWII Spain. Look for the common element of “escape” in the real and the unreal parts of the film, a theme that is picked up throughout the movie. I found that the story’s conclusion about that theme, at the end, is the real surprising element of the whole fairy-tale. But you’ll have to go see it to find out what that is.
To expound on the thematic concept of escape, the movie even opens with it - the princess from under the earth escapes to the sunlit “real” world, only to lose her memory and find sorrow…pain, sickness, and then death. Apparently reborn in the form of Ofelia, a young girl obsessed with fairy tales, the little princess, according to the fantasy, anyway, is now looking to escape our world. I noticed that even while her mother was still alive, she never really questioned the fact that she wanted to do the tasks set before her that would lead her back to her place underground, to escape from the life imposed on her by circumstance (the death of her father, her mother’s remarriage).
The adults around her go through the same troubles named in the introduction: sickness (the mother), pain (the Captain’s torture victims), and death, which is the most prevalent sorrow of all. As the movie continues, it becomes progressively thicker with the stench of grief. But the theme of escape shows up again and again.
Ofelia has narrow escapes both in her fantasy world and in the real one. But also key are the escapes of the adults around her.
Carmen, surrounded by soldiers after she’s discovered helping the rebels under the Captain’s very nose, would have escaped by death (the knife to her own throat) rather than go through more pain, but instead she escapes when her brother and the other dissidents appear and shoot down her would-be captors. She is reunited with her brother, who, she discovers with relief, is still alive.
The stuttering soldier escapes by the doctor’s hand into death after he begs for it. It ends his pain, acute under the tools of the Captain’s monstrous torture.
There are plenty of other examples of this throughout. Ofelia, strangely, finds a fantastical escape by being caught in the heart of the labyrinth, which typically marks only the middle of a journey in a maze (most labyrinth tales in mythology end with the hero exiting - only monsters are trapped in the middle somewhere). This concept can also be seen in how Ofelia comes to the Captain’s house in the country, the heart of a maze of pain and troubles for her - and finds the last existing portal to her old world at its center. And of course, she finds her escape in a more typical place, in books, both metaphorically and in the magic book that gives her instructions for her tasks which will lead to her real escape. I noted that she always seemed to open that book in the middle, too.
And then, she finally leaves this world through death and escapes back to her own. Note that every fantastical element may well have all been a part of her imagination.
The surprise is the final conclusion the movie gives us on the idea of escape. Many fantasies, even the most famous escapist children’s fantasies like The Neverending Story or Labyrinth end with the boy or girl leaving the fantasy and facing the hard world they left, except now with confidence they didn’t have before. They grow up. In Narnia (during the course of several books) the children, one by one, grow up so much, they can never return to fantasyland. They regret it, but they move on.
But this movie concludes, in my opinion, the opposite. The tortured soldier welcomes death. Carmen also would have preferred death were it not for the happenstance of the ambush. And at the last minute, even though Ofelia chooses her baby brother over the promised path to the other world, she still earns her escape - by the act of growing up. Like Narnia, one could even choose to see religious overtones to that. It’s as though the movie is telling us…escape is the real ends we all seek, from a life which holds, yes, sunlight and fig trees, but also pain, and sickness, and death. It’s a concept expressed in Buddhist principles: that life is suffering, caused by human hands, and that there is an escape for us. Perhaps the fantasy princess first escapes her perfect underground world because without the shadow cast by suffering, she cannot know what a perfect existence with which she is blessed. Perhaps only after experiencing the light and the shadow together does she truly reach nirvana.
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