Imagine your bad, false father as a giant toad, lazy and arrogant, that squats in the mucky depths of a dead tree, fattening on foot-long bugs. Or imagine this same monstrous father as something closer to human but faceless, hairless, sexless and naked, with dead-white skin hanging in folds. This sluggish, forked biped slumbers before the fire in a subterranean banquet hall, oblivious to the rich décor or the magnificent feast spread on the table. It wants to eat you, little girl, and comes at you when roused with eyeballs fixed in the palms of its hands. To see, for this thing, is to grab and kill.
Now think of a fully human stepfather: a fascist military officer serving in Franco’s victorious army. The gloomy lair of this Captain Vidal is an old mill, set in the woods and mountains where he has been sent to hunt a few remaining partisans. Your widowed mother has married this man–why, you can’t understand–and so you must either live under his power or else, like the partisans, find a way to rebel. But Vidal is harder to vanquish than a giant toad, harder to elude than a cannibal slug. He, too, sees only to grab and kill, but he doesn’t hunger for you. He wants to consume your mother, by pulling a baby son from her womb.
If I write that you must undergo this trial–you, rather than young Ofelia, the heroine with the rosy face and unpromising name–it’s because the magic that many films promise actually works in Pan’s Labyrinth. Beginning with the dizzyingly hypnotic opening shot–or, even before there’s an image, with the evocative sounds of the wind stirring, a lullaby sighing, a child gasping for breath–writer-director Guillermo del Toro succeeds in submerging you in Ofelia’s memory and imagination, where grown-up threats and struggles turn into fairy tales.
Gliding through the woods at night, del Toro’s camera discovers Ofelia lying on the ground, then tilts and comes closer as if it were an intelligent winged creature, curious and sympathetic. It approaches her bloodied face. Then it plunges into one of her eyes–the first of many eyes in this movie–and so into the volumes of her mind, which pulse with firelight and shadows. The interior of this child’s skull is part puppet stage and part Piranesi engraving, reverberating with a basso narrator’s fable about a princess who lived in a kingdom underground, and who ventured fatally into the world above. The camera rises on cue through a domed stair hall, toward an oculus that blazes with light. By the time a flash blanks out the screen, allowing the shot to continue (without seeming interruption) into a forest scene, the camera has you magnetized. You are going to be drawn along on all of Ofelia’s adventures–but despite appearances, you have not been drawn entirely outside her thoughts. This daylit forest, too, lies partly within the maze of the little girl’s consciousness.
Moviegoers who are just catching up with del Toro should know that this is not the first time he has told a story of the Spanish Civil War, or put a child’s thoughts at the center of his movie. He did both in a 2001 release, The Devil’s Backbone; and if you want to go even further back in his career, into his ostensibly pure genre movies, you might note that his insect-fear masterpiece, Mimic, is at heart concerned with the world of an autistic boy. In Pan’s Labyrinth, you may note the recurrence from these earlier pictures of favorite del Toro motifs: the intervention of a large, clacking insect, for example, which welcomes Ofelia to the woods and guides her through the movie, or the great importance that Captain Vidal assigns to chronology. (Not only does he devote himself obsessively to a cracked pocket watch; he dwells in a room dominated by the mill’s old wooden wheel, as if he were living inside the mechanism of an enormous timepiece.) If these deliberate recyclings are evidence in del Toro of a heightened auteurist self-regard, then I say he’s earned it. Everything he’s done to date reaches a new stage of maturity, beauty and depth of feeling in Pan’s Labyrinth.
I can credit much of the film’s impact to Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography, whose storybook palette is rich enough to encompass everything from the deep violets of a nocturnal scene to the soft, fluttering white of seeds drifting through shafts of sunlight. Thanks to Navarro, the images are more than clear and more than tactile. You can almost smell them: the worn stone of a Celtic carving, the smoke of the partisans’ abandoned campfire, the blood that trickles over a tongue or (most of all) the moist odor of dirt and leaves clinging to Pan, the towering, obsequious yet not quite trustworthy faun who appears to Ofelia and instructs her on what she must do.
All this is compelling, but the deepest power of Pan’s Labyrinth lies in the actress playing Ofelia: 12-year-old Ivana Baquero. One of the challenges of her role is that she gets to assert herself only with characters who aren’t really there. These are the film’s various computer-generated critters, plus the faun (who is a creation of actor Doug Jones, a hidden puppeteer and a ton of makeup). Baquero’s scenes with live actors, though, require her to be almost exclusively reactive. In a moon-besotted movie that continually contrasts the true time of the lunar cycle with the false time of clocks, she is herself a kind of satellite, reflecting the light of stars. And what stars: Sergi López at his coldest, most brutal and slicked-back as Vidal; Ariadna Gil as Ofelia’s drooping flower of a mother, clinging tenderly to a final hope; Maribel Verdú (Mercedes) as Vidal’s sunken-cheeked housekeeper, whose head is bowed, whose eyes are lowered, whose voice is an acquiescent murmur, until suddenly they’re not. You might think that Baquero would fade compared with these presences; but through sheer attentiveness (which is to say, the talent of a born actress to forget herself) she shines as much as anyone.
What is it, though, that shines through Pan’s Labyrinth as a whole? I’d say it’s the power of imagination–not imagination as Vidal misunderstands it, as a capacity for soothing self-delusion, but as the will to say no. Ofelia has the imagination to ask questions and disobey. Vidal, who knows how to be fanciful only with a straight razor, fails to imagine that someone–a woman, even–might find the strength to disrupt his monstrous order.
I don’t know how you will value the imagination of Pan’s Labyrinth against the quasi-documentary realism of the only film I know as a touchstone, Victor Erice’s great The Spirit of the Beehive. It’s a question of the season, I suppose. There is a clear, wintry light to Erice’s film (which also concerns a fugitive hiding in the Spanish countryside and a child’s dreams of wonder)–an observational style and dramatic irony that may suit the chillier times in your life, and that were fitting to the film’s era. The Spirit of the Beehive was made and released when Franco still held power. Del Toro’s lunar, springtime fabulism, by contrast, is appropriate to another era, when the people of Spain know that dictators don’t rule forever. There is comfort in his film; but there is also a determination to remember, to keep faith and to encourage.
The beauty of Pan’s Labyrinth exists for its own sake. The magic has a purpose.
With the release of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima two months after his Flags of Our Fathers, one of the most remarkable projects in American film history is complete. It astonishes me to think that even a producer-director of Eastwood’s influence could carry it off: making two complete films about the battle for Iwo Jima, one from the point of view of the American servicemen and the other from the Japanese viewpoint, with an all-Japanese cast speaking their own language. The ambition is impressive in itself, but what’s laudable is how that ambition has been realized, with dignity, compassion and a filmmaker’s equivalent of plain-spoken eloquence.
Flags of Our Fathers (reviewed December 4) re-creates the past by exploring a document of the war: the famous photograph of the American flag-raising. Letters From Iwo Jima adopts the same narrative strategy but uses as its documents the correspondence (both delivered and unsent) of Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima. So the American film is about visual images and the manufacture of public meaning; the Japanese film, about words and personal convictions. Here is a paradox: Although the great majority of the characters in Letters From Iwo Jima believe they must offer their lives for their emperor, their manner of making that sacrifice turns out to be highly individual.
Two figures predominate in the large cast: the aristocratic commanding general, Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by the godlike Ken Watanabe), and a sardonic, sly, hapless conscript named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who was a baker in civilian life and would just as soon turn the island over to the Americans. With an ease and grace more suited to the general than the foot soldier, Eastwood and his screenwriters (Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis) slowly draw together the fates of these two. Saigo turns into a fighter, not through love of his country but from personal loyalty to the general. He clings to Kuribayashi because the general, though steeped in the code of the Japanese warrior, is himself idiosyncratic. He breaks with tradition, to the outrage of his subordinate officers, by conserving his troops’ strength and falling back into underground bunkers rather than plunging into glorious battle. Worst of all, he forbids his men to commit suicide when they lose a position, ordering them instead to escape and go on fighting. Kuribayashi brushes away the charge that such behavior is a disgrace. He has lived in the United States, admires Americans and knows that the force coming his way is overwhelming. With surrender unthinkable, he and his men are already dead. The best they can do is to keep up whatever spirit they can muster.
Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima together form an enormous diptych that has all the grandeur these stories demand. There are crowd scenes, chaotic battles (filmed in the contemporary style, with most of the color drained away), vistas of vast fleets of warships and airplanes. What emerges most powerfully, though, is an intimate sense of sorrow, and of decency. If there is any chance that popular American cinema will continue to be an art form–a very slight chance, I’d say, looking back over the past year’s major studio releases–then I bet Eastwood’s Iwo Jima films will stand as a monumental achievement, and an enduring one.