Pan's Labyrinth is a punishing, evocative poem. It is part ferocious reality and part fearful fantasy.
Endangered children is a staple of television, but it's still somewhat of a rarity in major movies. But three successful movies in 2006 by Mexican directors have featured endangered children.
And all three films are political.
Those films are Pan's Labyrinth, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, Babel, directed by Alexandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Children of Men, co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron.
The walls have not kept out Mexican directors -- the three Mexican filmmakers have received a total of 16 Oscar nominations.
In this year's nominations, Babel received seven nominations, including best picture. Children of Men received three nominations, and Pan's Labyrinth received six nominations.
Pan's Labyrinth is nominated for best original screenplay, art direction, cinematography, makeup, best original score and best foreign language film, which it should win.
Pan's Labyrinth is set in Spain in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco's forces are in the process of wiping out the resistance guerillas.
Ofelia (Ivana Barquero), a young girl, is caught in this world of brutality, death, and horror. She tries to deal with it by moving into a world of fantasy.
Ofelia and her mother (Ariadna Gil), who is pregnant with the child of Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez), travel to an ancient mill to the headquarters of Vidal, who is the vicious commander of the Franco forces charged with destroying the remaining partisans.
Although he is Ofelia's stepfather, Vidal only cares about the unborn child his wife is carrying, which he is convinced is a son who will carry on his lineage.
Vidal's headquarters is in a forest. In her wanderings Ofelia goes into the depths of a labyrinth in the gardens -- symbolism, metaphor and imagination soar.
Ofelia meets a horned faun (Doug Wilson) who gives her three dangerous tasks and tells her that if she accomplishes them, she will be restored to the status of princess that she once possessed in a previous realm.
She is trying to prevail in two different worlds. Both have dangers, and both have monsters. She can't change reality, but perhaps she can change fantasy.
Her fantasy is not mere escapism. In a world in which faith often leads to ignorance, can her fantasy lead to redemption?
Guillermo del Toro is showing that children are victimized in war. It's a theme that in present day is hidden among the unseen caskets.
Decades ago when I first contributed to Sight and Sound's list of best films of all-time, I included Rene Clement's French film Forbidden Games (1952). It is about two children who are refugees in World War II.
It is a haunting vision of children struggling to survive in a world they don't understand. Pan's Labyrinth has the same haunting vision. But this time the child does understand.
The cast is excellent. Young Ivana Barquero is affecting as Ofelia, who is both vulnerable and bold. Sergei Lopez is compelling as the chilly, remorseless fascist commander Vidal. And Maribel Verdu provides much-needed humanity as an empathetic housekeeper.
The fact that Pan's Labyrinth received nominations in technical categories shows how artful it is.
And the nominations show that a new Hollywood may be emerging. Many have commented on the diversity of those who have been rewarded with nominations.
In Pan's Labyrinth, fantasy tries to trump fear, but new fears compete with the old ones. Can fantasy provide a means for prevailing over moral chaos?
Can fantasy save us?
Moviegoes who leave the theater may need to conjure up a new fantasy to escape del Toro's.
Or at least take a stiff drink.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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