Saturday, December 02, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth directed by Guillermo del Toro

Mexican film-makers are currently in the ascendant, working together and abroad. The year opened with Tommy Lee Jones's modern western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, scripted by Guillermo Arriaga. Alfonso Cuaron's British dystopian thriller Children of Men is still running. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel (scripted by Arriaga) will be released in January. And Guillermo del Toro's remarkable Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno), which Cuaron has produced, appears this week. It's del Toro's sixth film, and his best to date, and like the others it's a horror movie though much less of a genre picture than his Hollywood output.

His previous Spanish film, The Devil's Backbone (2001), was set towards the end of the Civil War at a remote orphanage, and the events - which include the terrible brutality of Franco's troops and a ghost that issues warnings of forthcoming catastrophe - are seen through the eyes of a sensitive young boy. We inevitably think of an earlier Spanish movie, Victor Erice's masterly Spirit of the Beehive, which takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Pan's Labyrinth is set six years or so later, in 1944, very precisely in June when news of the Allied invasion of Normandy arrives in an authoritarian state where a party of left-wing guerrillas, the last remnants of the Republican army, are hiding out in the mountains.

They are, perhaps fortunately, unaware that Franco will remain dictator for a further 30 years. Hunting them down is a detachment of soldiers led by Captain Vidal, brilliantly played by the handsome, menacing Sergi Lopez, best known in this country for playing the psychopathic killer in Dominik Moll's Harry, He's Here To Help and the evil head porter of a London hotel in Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things. Vidal is a ruthless sadist, an archetypal fascist bully trying to live up to the expectations of his father, a military hero killed in North Africa. This would be an exciting thriller in itself, but there is another story of a quite different kind.
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