When the credits came up, John just said "That was beautiful."
I can't just leave it at that, but it's genuinely hard to improve on it as a summary. John and I are reasonably hard boiled people and have watched both Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet without any misgivings. We're not, it's fair to say, the local representatives of the Fluffy Bunny Liberation Front. So when either one of us gets, well, almost lyrical, something special can be inferred.
I did, of course, ruin the moment by replying "Yeah, I can't wait till they remake it with Jim Carrey". Had to arrest that dangerous slide into sentiment.
Still, this was something out of the ordinary. It's always fun, of course, to go to a foreign language movie in Dublin's Cineworld. Every time you buy your ticket, the nice person on the desk is careful to make sure that you're aware that the movie is going to be, well, not in English. I think it's a testament to the quality of life in this country that people don't take it for granted that someone with enough money for a movie ticket will have earned the money through work that required enough brains to figure out that a film is going to be in Spanish. Of course, it doesn't say much for our confidence in THE BEST EDUCATION SYSTEM IN THE WORLD (I was paid to say this for decades, I can't quite back away from it now) that Cineworld's staff also don't take it for granted that people can read subtitles. Honestly, I think they should have a policy that if the customer didn't surf up to the ticket booth on a wave of his own drool, he should be assumed to know enough to come in out of the rain.
But I digress.
Actually, that might have made a better name for the whole blog.
Another fun thing about foreign movies is that there are usually tons of foreigners at them. When we went to The Host, it seemed like there were more Koreans in the cinema with us than there were in the crowd scenes on the screen. Who, I wondered, was running the Korean restaurants while all these people were goofing off? It mattered. We were going to Koreatown for dinner after the movie. And for Pan's Labyrinth the place was full of Spanish accents, which added a certain frisson to the audience reactions as events unfolded.
Did I mention the digression problem?
So there you are. Del Toro has a thing about the Spanish Civil War, which is hardly surprising - to the outside world at least, it's about the only thing noteworthy about Spain since the Armada washed up on the West Coast of Ireland. If even we've heard of it, it must prey on the minds of Spanish people something wicked. This is, to my knowledge, his second movie set in the rough period, but it's an eye-opener for the non Spanish set because really, who knew that as late as 1944 there were still anti-fascist holdouts in the hills? I didn't.
The Captain - it's shaming to admit that I did not manage to remember his family name once the lights came up - is leading a band of Spanish soldiers in a spot of rural pacification somewhere in the hills of - I'm guessing here - Asturias. I wondered what he was a captain of, because his soldiers all had fetching pale blue uniforms at a time when serious armies were making more of an effort not to clash with the scenery, but then again I never saw uniforms which had quite so many rank insignia and badges on them. Maybe the whole Neapolitan chocolate box effect was part of a military fashion statement that non-Spaniards couldn't understand. Anyhow, the uniforms are the prettiest thing about the campaign - El capitan is not a nice guy and his minions have no problems or qualms about his approach either. Not that the partisans are overflowing with the milk of human kindness - neither side seems to have heard anything about this Convention from Geneva.
Into this fun and merriment come the Captain's new wife, pregnant with his son and heir and - as her daughter by her first husband puts it neatly - sick with baby. El Capitan is of the view that a son should be born wherever his father happens to be, regardless of the fact that up a hillside in the middle of a guerilla campaign is no place for a healthy mother, let alone one in his wife's condition. His stepdaughter, Ofelia, is a reader and a dreamer, and there's no love lost between her and her stepfather. The grandees of the region may suck up to the Captain over dinner and his men may think he's just the thing for clearing out the hold-outs so that Spain can get on being a fascist swamp for the next four decades, but Ofelia's not buying it.
And this would all make for a perfectly interesting movie if you stopped right there, but Del Toro adds a whole lot more. Ofelia sees fairies as she makes her way into the hills and they lead her in turn to a maze - the Labyrinth of the title - and there she finds Pan, the faun, who explains to her that she is the reincarnation of the lost princess of the fairy realm, and must undergo three tests before the full moon to prove herself and regain her birthright. Ofelia's part of the story is full of fantastical creatures while the other characters play out a much grimmer game, but is she imagining it all?
Well, it's never made explicit, but the ending tends to take you in just one direction. While the fantastical creatures along the way - and the decision to see much of this through the eyes of a child - reminded me of the more readable works of Clive Barker, the ending made me think of Gilliam's Brazil, and in particular the director's preferred, downbeat and yet somehow uplifting ending, both redemptive and despairing. And Del Toro can't be accused of selling us short - his opening scene tells us exactly how things are going to end. As Chris Walken says in True Romance, this is as good as it gets and it ain't gonna get any better.
Why does it work, then? Why did John say "That was beautiful?" Firstly, because the performances are extremely good. Ofelia is extraordinary; an intelligent child who remains open to believing the impossible and almost makes the audience want to join in - even old cynics like me. The Captain is a monster, but unlike Hollywood monsters, he's a monster who's putting in the hours. There's no fleering theatrics to this villain - just an all too believable portrait of an arrogant and violent man with not the merest smidgeon of empathy, caught up in the idea that anything is permissible to advance the cause and his own obsession with carrying on his dynasty. And circling around these performances are equally good ones from the Captain's palpably doomed bride and his terrified but courageous housekeeper. Then there's the effects - enough to show us wonder, not so much as to distract us from the people. That takes fine judgment. And finally, there's the writing; the plot unfolds with a simple inevitability which is somehow completely true to the characters and the time.
All in all, a wonderful piece of work. Not anything like as much fun as Little Miss Sunshine, but I don't expect that anything will be this year.
However, it's weird to watch it in a room with lots of Spanish people in it, because when the government troops got clobbered, the audience reaction was almost more gleeful than I felt comfortable with. And later on, when the Captain winds up having to perform some wincemakingly painful extempore surgery on himself; well, I can't say I was too troubled that a torturer and murderer was having a thin time of it, but I didn't think it was funny. I found myself trying to remember if I chuckled through any of the bits of Michael Collins where the Crown forces had a bad day. I couldn't recall, but it underlined to me that for a lot of people in the cinema with me, what I had just seen was more than just a story to them.