Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro's new film is a fabulous bit of storytelling - in form, narrative, and performance. It tells the tale of a little girl named Ofelia (the wonderful Ivana Baquero) whose father, a tailor, died during the Spanish Civil War, which has just recently ended. Her pregnant mother takes up with a brutal Captain in Franco's army to stay alive. The film begins as they travel to a remote outpost where the remnants of the resistance hide out in the forest. The Captain's job is to destroy these last pockets of troops. The narrative heads off on two prongs - one is the story of the Captain's crusade against the resistance, and the other is of Ofelia's fantasy life amidst these horrors. Directed to a labryinth on the property by an insect/fairy, she discovers an abrasive/sarcastic/tender satyr (Doug Jones) who tells her she is the reincarnation of Princess Moanna, who ruled an ancient underground kingdom. In order to retake her throne, she has to fulfill a series of dangerous tasks - involving magic stones, giant frogs and baby-eating grotesques.
del Toro elegantly shifts between these two stories by cutting on motion, between the Captain's huffing steed and Ofelia's tentative gait. The contrast is simple and highly effective - Ofelia escapes her repressive, violent life by imagining a fairy tale for herself where she is heroine. But as it is a reflection of her real life - it is seeped in violence, mud, and blood. It's Grimm's instead of Disney. The creatures are strikingly inventive - the baby-eater calmly stuffs it's eyes into its palms, sticks the hands up by its head like ears to see, and staggers drunkenly towards its prey, with zombie-like patience. Other tiny details - like a root that cries like a baby, the insect-fairy that gorges itself on meat, and Jones' fabulous creation - the goat-man with creakingly wooden appendages, create a world of the fantastic seething with menace.
The soothing power of the imagination is paramount throughout, whatever its ultimate failure. The most beautiful piece of the film occurs when Ofelia's mother asks her to calm her unborn child by telling him one of her stories. Ofelia obediently bends her mouth to mother's belly, and tells a story of a flower that blooms on top of thorn covered mountain, that if picked gives immortality. del Toro dissolves to the fetus listening with rapt attention as the image of the flower is superimposed onto the background. It's an unexpected and stirring moment, the calming power of storytelling never so concisely displayed.
It's structure is expertly organized, with both strands peaking and meeting in the final sequence, as death and dreams meet in a scene of bloody, devastating beauty.