You know a director has a knack for visual terror when he kicks off a movie with a voice comparing a ghost to an insect trapped in amber as he shows a boy dropping to the bottom of a brackish pool. We immediately plunge into a blood-tinged limbo.
For connoisseurs of intelligent horror, Mexican-born filmmaker Guillermo del Toro earned his stripes with these opening minutes of The Devil's Backbone (2002), a ghost story set in an isolated boys' boarding-school-cum- orphanage during the last days of the Spanish Civil War. Throughout the film, del Toro juggled imperiled innocents and political upheaval with images that clambered back into your memory weeks after you saw it, and gave your backbone a chill. And del Toro has continued to plant kernels of truth within cornucopias of inspired grotesquerie. He calls what he does "eye protein, not eye candy."
Now 42, del Toro has topped himself with Pan's Labyrinth (opening this Friday), in his words "a sister movie" to The Devil's Backbone. Set in 1944, it boasts a 12-year-old heroine with a core as spunky as Huckleberry Finn's. Del Toro tests the mettle of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) when she travels with her mother, Carmen (Ariana Gil), to a remote military outpost. There her wicked stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), has transformed an abandoned mill into something like Gestapo headquarters. And in a nearby garden labyrinth, a giant faun (Doug Jones) ushers Ofelia into a hidden domain and salutes her as its prodigal princess. If she completes three perilous tasks before the next full moon, she can take her royal seat in the underworld.
The fantasy elements of Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone reflect the gory reality of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's defeat of the Republican Army with the aid of Nazis and Fascists. But Pan's Labyrinth has richer, spikier textures and vivid, vertiginous emotions. Last weekend, America's National Society of Film Critics deemed it the best film of 2006 -- not just the best foreign-language film, but best film period.
The achievement of this dyptich goes beyond prestige and prizes.
Few filmmakers have fashioned a full alternate universe out of their own imaginations and experiences. Peter Jackson did J.R.R. Tolkien to perfection in the Rings movies; Del Toro's friend Alfronso Cuaron did the same for J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro does del Toro.
Now based in Madrid and Los Angeles, del Toro explained his approach over the phone, during a promotional stop in Washington. He roots his horror in his mad enthusiasm for the genre and its archetypes, from bold and sometimes foolish girls to carnivorous monsters. But he also links his work to symbolist artists such as Arnold Bocklin, who mined dream-like pagan myths, and late-
Victorian illustrators such as the seductively gnarly Arthur Rackham.
And when Del Toro makes adult horror films, he incorporates his tragic sense of history.
Fighting the oppressor
The Spanish Civil War is, he confessed, a natural subject for him. Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, del Toro learned early on that "Mexico was one of the few countries worldwide that openly supported the Republican government and condemned the fascist coup." Among the massive migration of Spanish artists and intellectuals was a future film historian, Emilio Garcia Riera, who escaped to Mexico with his mother at age 4 and later befriended a teenage del Toro.
Riera, who died in 2002, had spent only a few years in Spain. But all his life he felt as if his roots were severed. "The more you look into the Spanish Civil War," he told del Toro, "the more you realize how important it was not just for Spain, but for the entire world, as a moment of shame." To del Toro, the failure of Western democracies to intercede in the Spanish Civil War became the most woeful example of cowardice among liberal allies.
It also became the perfect backdrop for tales of moral struggle amid totalitarian booby traps.
Del Toro always envisioned The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth as twins. "One of the tragic things in history," says del Toro, "is that the left knows how to drift apart while the right always simulates togetherness." The Devil's Backbone, the more political of the two, mixes a boy's adventure story with a Gothic romance to demonstrate "how people can overcome their shortcomings, and even the fragility of their group, to fight a single oppressor as a single righteous entity."
Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro says, is the opposite. "It asks: How do you, as an individual, face the oppression of groups that have joined together in their assumed superiority, which is the fascist mentality? The Devil's Backbone is about how all these wounded or impotent characters can pool their strengths. Pan's Labyrinth is personal and humanistic. It's about how important individual disobedience is as a preamble to responsibility."
Del Toro has been married for 19 years and is the father of two girls, 5 and 10. In Ofelia he presents a female character who displays sterling intuition without flaunting it. She pulls back from her evil stepfather. She even defies the faun. Her inner compass stays steady and true.
The writer-director grew to see Pan's Labyrinth as a tale of multiple female responses to the vile masculine aggression of Franco's Spain. Ofelia's mother, Carmen, embodies the "fully obedient female role" that leads, he says, to "the worst outcome. An oppressive society always makes blind obedience seem like a virtue and uses words like 'patriotism' and 'loyalty' to make people feel comfortable with dubious moral choices."
Ofelia, though, is at heart a heroic rapscallion. In the movie's high point, the faun instructs her to steal a knife from a banquet table in the netherworld and warns her not to eat anything. But she can't ignore some sumptuous grapes. Her defiance causes the seemingly blind Pale Man to spring to life, pop two eyeballs into his palms and proceed to stalk Ofelia and some friendly, ill-fated fairies.
It's the most elaborate and allegorical of the movie's set pieces -- the Pale Man sits at the head of the table like her stepfather -- yet it's hardly the climax of the film.
For Hollywood moviemakers, that would have been a problem. After enjoying critical success with a wildly original immortality-gone-wrong movie, Cronos (1993), del Toro lost creative control of an American creature feature, Mimic (1997). Since then he has won mainstream acceptance with 2002's Blade II and 2004's Hellboy. Based on his experience developing commercial screenplays, del Toro thinks the studios would have forced him to tell "Ofelia's story with frequent and escalating clashes, mostly between her and her stepfather and mostly organized around payoffs and plot points that dutifully oppose the good guys and the bad guys until the end. But I believe when you do your own thing, you don't have to articulate your tale that way. Your Little Red Riding Hood and your Big Bad Wolf can ignite tension simply by existing. We irritate people to no end just by being who we are."
Del Toro strove to unite his themes through the "poetic correlations" of his images, not theatrical confrontations. "You don't have be told that the Fascist captain is the equivalent of a faceless ogre that devours children. Ofelia is 12; she's lived through the Civil War; she's survived it. That ogre could be her stepfather or the world at large. She sees a cannibalistic impulse everywhere, even in a giant frog that eats a tree from within."
At the start, Del Toro separates Franco's and Ofelia's worlds, and he keeps it that way for 30 minutes. Then he gradually mingles them. His prime tools are visual motifs such as knives and keys. The birth of Ofelia's half-brother brings the two worlds together with a bang and a whimper.
The filmmaker wanted to balance each world's emotional weight so acutely that some viewers believe fully in Ofelia's secret realm while others treat it as a psychological escape. "What matters is that she manages to create her own reality and live in it." To del Toro, no matter how you interpret the ending, the message is the same.
"I'm going to butcher this quote," says the filmmaker, "but I believe, with Kierkegaard, that the reign of the tyrant ends with his death, and the reign of the martyr begins with his death."