Pan’s Labyrinth officially makes the third story I have seen in my life set during the Spanish Civil War.  For those of you who want the briefest of backgrounds, in the late 30s, a Fascist government came to power by overthrowing the Republican government, and a lot of the Republicans became fled or (in this particular film) became guerilla freedom fighters.

The first story I saw set in this era was Elke Neidhardt’s staged opera production of Il Trovatore, which I saw in Brisbane some years back.  This was an interesting production and worked rather well because there were two opposing armies in the opera, so the revamp worked well.

The second movie was also by the director of this film, Guillermo del Toro, and was called The Devil’s Backbone.  I don’t know many other people who saw it, but it was about a little boy who was left at an orphanage in the last days of the war.  So while the fighting was raging outside, the boy was being haunted by the ghost of a murdered child.

And now we have Pan’s Labyrinth.  In this particular case, the boy has become a little girl, Ofelia, who is heading up into the mountains with her pregnant mother, to join her mother’s new husband, Captain Vidal.  Vidal is a fascist, and absolutely obsessed with killing the last of the rebel guerillas hiding in the mountains.

While Vidal spends his time tracking down the rebels, young Ofelia becomes more obsessed with fairies.  Pretty soon, she’s seeing them, and one night, a Faun (who alternates between being friendly and menacing), gives her a series of tasks to do: tasks which, in the tradition of the old fairy tales (not the latest sugar-coated Disney versions) become increasingly more frightening as the movie rolls along.

I was a bit disappointed with this film, because I was hoping that there would be some sort of connection between the fairy story and the real world story.  (Perhaps even an allegory.)  But it seemed a little bit more disconnected than that.  Basically, imagine that during The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe movie, the film kept switching between the kids in Narnia and a story about British troops being stationed at the old house who are hunting for Nazi spies hiding in the woods. If that seems like an odd mix, that’s what Pan’s Labyrinth seemed like to me.

At the end of the day, I think this film was more style than substance. Beautifully shot, with every scene being great eye-candy, you were certainly never bored, but nonetheless, the film was populated with stock characters.  The ailing mother who doesn’t see what’s really going on, the innocent child, the nice doctor, the caring maid, and absolutely chewing up the screen, Sergi Lopez (who similarly chewed up the screen in the very Hitchcockian Harry, He Is Here To Help a few years ago) as Captain Vidal.  I don’t think we’ve seen a psychopath like this since Ralph Fiennes’s random Jew-shooting in Schindler’s List.

Which of course brings me to what really ties this film together, fairy tale and real story: they’re both gross.  The special effects guys who work on the gore have gone to town on this film, with ever-escalating new ways to be unsubtle.  Where other films move the camera somewhere else once the amputating surgeon pulls out his hacksaw, this camera moves in to show you the action.  All this culminates in what is without doubt, the mother of squeam-inducing scenes: a scene where, to spoil as little of it as possible, a character sews up their own wound.  The scene dragged out for something 30-45 seconds, but I doubt very many of the audience I was with watched the whole thing.

Was there a point to any of this extra blood and guts? I don’t think so.

So, all in all, a fascinating piece of film-making an an engaging story, but I’m not sure this is the great fantasy masterpiece of the decade.  3 1/2 out of 5.

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