Jan 312007
Authors: Jeff Schwartz

***** out of *****

Of all the movies I’ve seen since I began this column, “Pan’s Labyrinth” has made me the most aware of my shortcomings as a critic.

Here is a film brimming with a profusion of visual and storytelling wonders that literally brought me and my fellow theater-goers to silence at its conclusion.

And yet, days after having seen this film, I am still hard-pressed to articulate the reasons behind this silence.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is the brainchild of Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican director most known in the United States for films like “Blade II” and “Hellboy,” and while those films may have hinted at his visual faculties, “Pan’s Labyrinth” marries del Toro’s penchant for brilliant visuals with a story that is told with all the magic and unassuming skill of a fairy tale.

The story, as in all fairy tales, is simple: Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a young girl living in Spain during the last throes of its civil war. Ofelia’s father is dead and her mother (Adriana Gil) has remarried and is pregnant. Ofelia’s stepfather is the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a member of the Fascist military who is in charge of ridding rural Spain of communist rebels.

Left to her own devices, Ofelia wanders the woods around the Vidal’s manor house and eventually discovers an ancient labyrinth inhabited by an equally ancient faun (Doug Jones).

The faun believes Ofelia to be the princess of an underground realm, but in order to prove her royal lineage, he sets Ofelia off to accomplish three perilous tasks.

The tasks, which include confronting a grotesque toad and a child-eating ogre, test both Ofelia’s resilience and her morality, and it is in these scenes that “Pan’s Labyrinth” is most obviously working as a fairy tale, though it is a fairy tale of more intensity and violence than even the Grimm brothers could have imagined.

The scenes as Ofelia undergoes her tasks are juxtaposed with scenes involving Captain Vidal, a man of such cruelty that he seems even less human than the mythical characters like the ogre.

Like a fine tapestry, all the elements of “Pan’s Labyrinth” weave together to create a stunning overall effect, marked by strong performances, a cunning, heartrending story and music and cinematography that are hauntingly expressive.

Baquero. as Ofelia, especially deserves accolades for her portrayal of a girl on the cusp of adolescence who is brutally made aware of life’s tribulations, and the courage and conviction it takes to confront these tribulations. That Baquero did not receive an Oscar nomination is exemplary of the Academy’s extravagant ineptitude.

If I have been ineloquent in this review, it is only because “Pan’s Labyrinth” defies conventional description. It is a film that, to quote Mark Twain, “(holds) the eye like a spell and (moves) the spirit like music.”

I can think of no better description.

Movie reviewer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at verve@collegian.com. The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the individual author and not necessarily those of the Collegian.

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