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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, January 13, 2007

 
Saturday Night At The Movies


Life During Wartime: A Fantasy Getaway

By Dennis Hartley

In 2001, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro used the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for his ghost story "The Devil’s Backbone". Six years later, del Toro has returned to the tumultuous Franco era, this time with a twist of dark fantasy in his new Spanish-language film, "Pan’s Labyrinth".

12-year old newcomer Ivana Bacquero delivers an impressive, nuanced performance as the film’s central character Ofelia, an intelligent, introverted girl on the verge of puberty who still clings to her childhood fascination with fairy tales. She and her very pregnant mother have just set up quarters with her new stepfather Captain Vidal (the always brilliant Sergi Lopez), a brutal, sadistic Fascist officer charged with mopping up stubborn rebel forces entrenched in the Spanish countryside.

With nothing resembling love or affection forthcoming from the black-hearted Vidal, and with her mother becoming increasingly bedridden due to a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia finds an escape valve by retreating ever deeper into a personal fantasy world, which she enters through an imaginary gate in a nearby garden. This is not necessarily Alice through the looking glass, as you might think; this is a much darker world of personified demons and monsters borne from Ofelia’s subconscious take on the real-life horrors being perpetrated by her truly monstrous stepfather and his Fascist henchmen.

In certain respects, the film reminded me of 1973’s (much more subtle) "Spirit of the Beehive", also set in Franco’s Spain, and likewise depicting a lonely young girl retreating into a private fantasy world in response to feelings of estrangement from her family.

While there are also some parallels here to the likes of "Alice In Wonderland", "Spirited Away", and "The Secret Garden", be advised that this is not your garden variety feel-good fairy tale with a warm and fuzzy ending that you want to watch with the kids. The fantasy sequences are closer in tone to Grimm morbidity than to Tolkien whimsy; and del Toro pulls no punches depicting the real horror and suffering that takes place during wartime.

In the visual department, the director once again displays an admirable talent for seamlessly blending wildly imaginative production design and prosthetics to create a vivid fantasy world (del Toro’s resume includes Mimic, Blade II and Hellboy.)

I have a caveat: if you find depictions of soldiers being tortured and malevolent violence directed against women and children upsetting, proceed with caution. (I am aware that no decent human being in their right mind finds that kind of thing much fun to watch in the first place, but I see the potential for more sensitive viewers to become quite distressed).

War is unhealthy for children: The Chronicles of Narnia , The Tin Drum, Forbidden Games,Grave of the Fireflies , Hope and Glory, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Empire of the Sun, Two Women, Sophie's Choice, The Diary of Anne Frank.


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