| tried to begin this celebration of Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece of tone and storytelling with a rousing cry - something along the lines of "Give it up for foreign cinema!" or "Hooray for films!" - but there’s no escaping it: Pan's Labyrinth is more bleak than breakfast at Bleak House on a bleak Monday morning. And they've just found out the milk is off.
If you haven't watched any kitten gifs for a few days, then I recommend topping up on them now. Go on, we'll still be here when you get back. Because, you see, Pan's Labyrinth is a pretty grim experience that begins and ends with the death of a child, and features a hearty amount of death throughout. It's also an extraordinarily accomplished feat of filmmaking worthy of any top ten list, let alone of the last decade. But is it better than a yawning kitten? Go, you fool, it's still not too late!
Set during the fallout of the Spanish Civil War - a conflict that left half a million people dead and the country at the mercy of the totalitarian Franco regime for the next thirty-odd years - we follow several protagonists who find their fates inextricably linked, after the arrival of a calculating and ideological army captain escalates an ongoing battle with a band of local rebels into a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
Central to all of this is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young displaced girl who seeks solace in her imagination to escape the harshness of reality. It's during one of these flights of fancy where Ofelia encounters a mysterious faun creature who believes her to be the spirit of a dead Princess, and challenges her to a series of trials in order to rejoin an underworld kingdom - a challenge she accepts, causing her to cross paths with the adults who seek to contain her perceived childishness as the real world events play out.
It's testament to Guillermo del Toro's imagination as a storyteller that he can not only come up with two fully fleshed-out sets of characters and worlds (either could arguably contain enough material to sustain a complete film in its own right), but that he also seamlessly weaves both of these into one tightly-wound bundle. Pan's Labyrinth is essentially a quest fantasy wrapped within a traditional folk tale about heroes and villains.
It is del Toro's meticulous skill as a filmmaker that brings the story to life, however. If you've seen any of his offerings then you'll be familiar with the motifs: religious iconography; insects; clocks - kind of an olde worldy gothic vibe, like Ichabod Crane meets Flava Flav in a candle shop. And they're all to be found here, quietly ticking away under and on the surfaces; adding to the sense of foreboding that is present throughout. No rap flows though, sadly.
Chief amongst del Toro's bag of tricks is the use of colour to sway the mood. Specifically his trademark employment of glowing amber, used to signify something otherworldly or fantastical, and neatly contrasting against the rough bark and hard stone of stupid reality. The result is a strangely compelling experience where you feel welcomed by the warmer hues, only to be brought almost literally crashing down to earth once the fantasy scenes end and people start shooting each other face-down in the mud.
The use of colour and surroundings reminds me of those classic 80s and 90s adventure movies, where the settings were as memorable as the characters. In fact, when Ali handed out our assignments I was initially confused because I was almost certain Pan's Labyrinth *did* come out in the 90s, and I strongly attribute this to what I like to think is del Toro's appreciation for old school production design.
So yeah, I know I've banged on more about Guillermo del Toro than the film itself, but that's because what we see on screen is what he sees in his mind, and we're fortunate that he's got the tools, patience and knowhow to bring his vision to fruition. In the hands of a lesser director, Pan's Labyrinth could have been just another Narnia-esque yarn (del Toro was actually offered the first Chronicles of Narnia film but turned it down to direct this) - and that's not to belittle those films, but to highlight what a unique talent del Toro is that he alone can carry an entire world on his shoulders.