What's it mean when an almost universally praised, heavily advertised movie is released in only one cinema in the county during a bizarre period of extremely cold weather? It means I was unwilling to wait outside behind sixty people on Monday to catch the 9:45pm showing of Pan's Labyrinth. So I saw Volver instead, and showed up an hour early Tuesday to catch Pan's Labyrinth.
Volver was decently entertaining with a disappointing ending. It's been compared to Arsenic and Old Lace, but it's not quite that fun . . . It begins in a cemetery on a windy day where of scores of women, honouring a custom, are cleaning tombstones of relatives. There's an impressive moment where wind knocks a cup over precisely on cue and we're introduced to three of the principal characters; Sole, Raimunda, and Raimunda's daughter Paula. Raimunda and Sole's deceased mother, whose tomb they're cleaning in the opening scene, soon returns from the dead, frightening Sole as she comes down the stairs of a dead aunt's house in one of the movie's best scenes--Sole seemed so perfectly terrified at even the idea of seeing a dead person walking around that she turns and runs.
Primarily, the movie's about these four characters, and more especially about Raimunda. But the beginning of the movie seems to establish a somewhat morbidly playful element about the dead and about murder that's sadly abandoned halfway through. But even sadder is the abandonment of another element which I won't reveal, as it's the ending.
I must say I adored the movie's closing credits, though, which consisted of a series of animated patterns and flowers reminiscent of the title sequences designed by Saul Bass or Maurice Binder. Though I think it would be fair to argue that such fantastic credit designs are at some discord with a movie that turns out to be a fairly mundane domestic drama.
Anyway, Pan's Labyrinth was a more satisfying movie. This is only the second Guillermo del Toro movie I've seen, the other being Hellboy, and I was struck by how many little pieces of imagery the two films had in common. I have the extended version of Hellboy on DVD, and on the director's commentary track Guillermo talks about how much he loves a scene of Rasputin being shaved with a straight razor, and how much it pained him to cut the scene from the theatrical release. Well, he certainly makes up for it in Pan's Labyrinth, wherein scenes of Captain Vidal shaving, using camera angles and movements similar to the Rasputin shaving scene, are used several times in the film, even leading to an overt bit of visual plot.
Doug Jones, who wore the Abe Sapien suit in Hellboy, plays two strange humanoid creatures in Pan's Labyrinth; "The Faun" (or the titular Pan), and "The Pale Man", whose removable eyeballs were also reminiscent of Rasputin, though the pale man goes a step creepier by keeping his eyes in the palms of his hands. And when we first see him sitting silently and straight backed, the image is more reminiscent of Kroenen from Hellboy.
The Pale Man's discovered by Ofelia, a young girl who's the movie's main protagonist, and for whose name I think we can give Guillermo some credit for boldness. Ofelia's such a loaded name that one can't help looking for Hamlet references the whole movie. The opening shot suggests Ofelia does end up tragically dead, but in her sensibility and situation Ofelia's far more readily reminiscent of Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Maybe there's also a play on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in her initial meeting with the faun . . .
Despite what the trailers might suggest, the film seems to spend far less time in Pan's fantastic world than it does on the "real" circumstance of the Spanish Civil War's aftermath, as Ofelia's stepfather, Captain Vidal, is constantly at odds with guerrilla fighters, remnants of the losing faction. The movie doesn't seem to suggest one world is any more relevant than the other, in fact at times the suggestion seems to be that Pan truly is everything and manipulates even the good old practical "real" world.