I've picked a big one today. It appeared on lots of "Best Films of 2006" lists, won three Oscars and was nominated for Best Foreign Film. Guillermo del Toro kept turning down Hollywood producers who wanted him to make the film in English and were offering to double his budget, because he didn't want any pressure to compromise on the story he was telling. In the end the film would be R-rated in America and in other countries judged fit for 15 or 16 year olds. It's fantasy, but it's not airy-fairy.
The main surprise for me was that not much of the film was fantastical at all. It's set in Spain at the time of World War Two, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is interesting historically because Spain's pseudo-fascists are unique in Europe because they won. They beat the rebels in the civil war, then stayed out of World War Two and hence never got overthrown by the Allies. On the contrary, America would later regard him as a potential ally against the Soviets. General Franco ruled Spain until he died in 1975, aged 82. Nevertheless here del Toro's making them look nearly as bad as the Nazis, with the film's villain, Captain Vidal, being the kind of guy who'll beat an innocent man to death because he feels like it and does all his torturing of prisoners personally. There's some fairly nasty gore, by the way. One normally expects the real-world scenes of a fantasy movie to be little more than a framing story, but here the real-world stuff is more brutal and scarier than Ofelia's other world.
That's curious, for a start. What's the meaning in a fantasy film in which your "real world" is a wartime historical drama that's just as far removed from the lives of your audience? (Well, from mine, anyway.) It's an intriguing choice and it got me looking for connections. Del Toro's fantasy world runs on fairy-tale principles, but in a dark way. Look at the faun's gift to Ofelia, for instance. He gives her a mandrake. It can cure, yes, but this one also drinks blood and of course it's most famous in folklore for having a scream that brings death. Furthermore del Toro didn't choose it by accident, since he's sufficiently sensitive to mythology that for instance he's specifically denied that his faun is Pan (who's in the English title, but not the Spanish one) because that would have had sexual implications. These fairies are dangerous. There's outright horror with the Pale Man and occasional parallels between the supernatural and the Falangists. Look out for the classical three-motifs, but more important is the theme of obeying orders and doing as you're told. In fairy tales you're meant to obey all orders unquestioningly and the audience will be screaming at you for being an idiot if you break even the slightest commandment, yet in the real world, orders are coming from Captain Vidal.
One interesting fact I noticed, by the way. Captain Vidal's always wrong when he murders people. I don't mean morally, but in the practical sense of whether he's being stupid or not. That was cool.
It's a beautiful film to watch, but oddly it's at its loveliest when we're in the real world. 1940s Spain looks ravishing, with a colour palette to die for and cinematography like an oil painting. Admittedly it's less lovely when they're sawing off a man's leg, for instance, but even so visually it's a far more romanticised world than del Toro's disconcerting notions of the fantastical. These aren't movie monsters. The nearest cinematic equivalents I've seen might be the freaks of
Silent Hill, or perhaps a Clive Barker film. Del Toro has said he was looking to draw on Victorian illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac, or symbolist painters like Arnold Bocklin and Carlos Schwabe. Besides, one of my favourite fantasy scenes here is cool because it's so gross, with icky bugs and a pig-sized toad. There's nothing dream-like or ethereal about any of this. On the contrary it's brutal and startling, with just as much power as the film's real world.
The acting is strong. The most important is obviously Ofelia, a child actress. Del Toro has said he was "scared shitless" by the challenge of trying to find the right actress, but he found what he was looking for in Ivana Baquero. If I were going to quibble, I might suggest that she perhaps doesn't do enough to establish the moment where she breaks the faun's fantasy rules, but I suppose "I'm a kid and I'm not thinking about it that deeply" is actually pretty hard to beat as a motivation for the moment. Besides, at that point we were always going to be screaming at her, no matter what she did. Meanwhile Sergi Lopez is interesting as Captain Vidal because he's not merely making him evil, while some of the supporting players like Maribel Verdu and Alex Angulo are adorable.
The most surprising cast member though is Doug Jones. Del Toro brought him in from
Hellboy and Mimic to play the prosthetic-heavy roles of the faun and the Pale Man, despite the fact that Jones was shitting bricks because he didn't speak Spanish. He does a great job, though. I particularly enjoyed the faun's quivering body language in his early scenes.
This is one of those films that keeps getting cooler the more you know about it. I want to rewatch it after studying more of the history, for instance, while I love details like Doug Jones spending hours perfecting all his Spanish dialogue or the fact that the faun's legs aren't CGI. (They're being controlled by Jones's real legs, which have been digitally removed.) Oh, and del Toro even went so far as to translate and write his own English subtitles, having had bad experiences in the past with other translators.
This is a rich, fascinating film. It's not as blockbuster-friendly as
Hellboy II: The Golden Army because its protagonist is a little girl instead of Ron Perlman, which makes it less story-driven and I'd guess that might be why my brother and sister were a little wrong-footed by it. That's what you get when you're writing a fairy tale. Besides, it makes the finale unpredictable. However it's by no means an art film, with soldiers all over the place and people getting shot, tortured and beaten to death. It's cool and it looks gorgeous. Neanderthals should like it too, although obviously you'll get far more from the film if you're thinking about it. It's been compared with Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia (children in a fantasy with fauns and a theme of disobedience and choice), not to mention Bridge to Terabithia and Jim Henson's
Labyrinth, but a less well-known one is del Toro's comparison with a 1973 Spanish drama called The Spirit of the Beehive. More directly it's also continuing the themes of del Toro's earlier film
The Devil's Backbone (2001), which has thus for me become a must-see. If I'd known, I'd have watched that first.
Great film. If nothing else, del Toro has shown himself to be one of cinema's greatest fantasists. Hang on, that sounds... oh, you know what I mean.