A Movie Recommendation
As the Academy Awards show evidently is going on right now, it seems appropriate to praise Pan's Labyrinth, which Annie and I finally caught this afternoon following a month or so of failed attempts to see it.
I'm having trouble articulating exactly what it was about this film that moved us so much. It's beautifully shot (I saw on the NYT site a few minutes ago that it won Best Cinematography) and visually amazing (ditto Best Art Direction and Makeup). The performances are remarkable, even more so for the filmmakers' decisions to cast a bunch of key roles against type, at least if Wiki is to be believed.
But I think it's the story, really. Or rather, two stories. One plot involves an anti-insurgency action in a remote corner of Spain, five years after the Francoite fascists won that country's civil war: an army captain has set up an outpost to capture or kill a group of Republican holdouts, summoning his pregnant wife and her daughter by a previous marriage to live with him for the duration of the campaign. As this story plays out, the captain's cruelty comes into sharp focus: he summarily executes two villagers, tortures a captured guerilla, and bullies his wife and her daughter. As his kind but meek wife weakens through the course of her pregnancy, the captain makes it increasingly clear that her value to him is nothing more than the bearer of his son-to-be.
The second story, which frames the movie at beginning and end and recurs throughout, involves the daughter. She is the reincarnation of a princess from the underworld who in ages long past went to the surface of the earth, forgot who she was, and died in confusion. Upon arriving at the captain's outpost, she discovers a labyrinth in the woods, and is subsequently visited by a faun who tells her of her true identity and sets her three tasks to prove that her "essence is intact."
Over the course of the movie, the girl is torn between the imperatives of her increasingly desperate "real life" and the mission she must complete to fulfill her destiny. Compared to virtually every other character in the story, though, she is blessed and fortunate: while the rest of them--fascist soldiers, resistance fighters, household staff, her own mother, perhaps even the captain--are caught up in forces beyond their control and reduced to acting out set roles in a larger drama, in the shadowy world of the faun she at least has some control over her own dispensation.
The movie works as narrative, as wish fulfillment, as drama and fantasy. It's probably the best film I've seen in three years, maybe longer. And it took me far away from a relatively dismal February Sunday without very much else to recommend it.