And now for something very much the same.
As long as this film centers on the vicious sadistic military Captain (a splendid performance by Sergio Lopez) and his relationship with his housekeeper, who has connections with the rebels who want to do him harm, this film is fascinating and horrifying and grimly funny. Unfortunately, for some bizarre reason, the director/screenwriter Guillermo Del Toro has decided to muddy this gripping story with some sentimental nonsense about a little girl and her interaction with some mythical creatures including a fawn, some fairies, and that creature you'll see in all the stills with his eyes in the palms of his hands.
See, the little girl's mother is the Captain's new wife. They're all in Spain during WWII, the Captain is a Fascist leader trying to wipe out a bunch of Communist rebels, and they're all living in some house in the middle of a forest that just happens to be infested with these rebels. The little girl, named Ofelia (get it?), is informed by a fawn (no, really, a fawn for Christ's sake) that she is a lost princess from another world, and that she has to pass three tests in order to prove herself worthy, and I'm sorry but I'm getting bored writing about it.
Forget about the little girl. She's probably the least interesting little girl who has every been expected to carry a movie and failed miserably. Her trials and tribulations have wowed a lot of people, especially the North American Film Critic Establishment (NAFCE) who have uniformly raved about this oddly tired and oddly unimaginative little film. The grownups, especially Sergio Lopez as the brutal but compelling Captain and Maribel Verdu as his housekeeper, are what the film is really about.
Lopez' Captain is a memorable villain, but he's more than that. Lopez never quite sinks into the obvious cliches of the psycho sadist. He trades them for a quiet conviction that is always convincing, never more so than during one memorable scene where he performs some emergency surgery on himself. Verdu's equally quiet and convincing performance is every bit Lopez' match. You just can't take your eyes off her, she manages to make every moment live onscreen.
So why are people falling all over themselves to praise this flick? Beats the hell out of me. PAN'S LABYRINTH offers some easy reassurance about transcending suffering, all wrapped up with a message of self-sacrifice and some stuff about escape through fantasy, and people just lap this stuff up. Now I don't mind me some reassurance about transcending suffering etc., but I just wish it had been done better. For a film about a girl's escape into fantasy to help her deal with the horrors of the real world around her, I much preferred Terry Gilliam's TIDELAND, a film that couldn't expect to be embraced by the kind of folks who are swooning over PAN'S LABYRINTH. And there it is, for me, in a nutshell. PAN'S LABYRINTH is a Terry Gilliam film for people who don't like Terry Gilliam films, who need the easy happy endings and reassurance that Gilliam relentlessly refuses to provide.