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Review: ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’

Del Toro’s Dark Fable

Above: "Pan's Labyrinth"

This awards season Guillermo Del Toro is one of three Mexican directors stirring Oscar buzz. Del Toro delivered the Hollywood hit "Hellboy" in 2004. But this year his film "Pan's Labyrinth" (opening January 12 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) is Mexico's official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Guillermo Del Toro represents a new breed of Mexican filmmaker, one who straddles multiple cultures and works globally. Take his new film. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a co-production of Mexico, Spain and the United States. It's set after the Spanish Civil War, but Del Toro says it was inspired by the political climate in the U.S.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: "I think the movie is about choice and disobedience. We have just gone through an election in this country that shows the importance of those two. Especially when you have a structure behind power that was telling us to simply obey and conform and support and not question. I think disobedience is the threshold of responsibility and I think you have to go by your instinct and the movie tries to show through a parable that choice and disobedience go hand in hand sometimes."

Choice and disobedience define the various characters in "Pan's Labyrinth." The fascist captain's choice is tyranize. A housekeeper and a doctor choose disobedience; they defy the captain. A girl named Ofelia provides our entry into the world of "Pan's Labyrinth."

Ofelia goes from the real world to a fantasy one. Cutting across boundaries is old hat for the filmmaker. That's according to the executive director of the San Diego Latino Film Festival Ethan Van Thillo.

ETHAN VAN THILLO: "I think Guillermo Del Toro is a border crosser, both physically by producing and directing films in Mexico, the United States and Spain, and through his films, his films cross all types of genres, all types of categories and reach audiences at many different levels."

That's for sure. The same director whose new film is a parable of Franco era Spain made the Hollywood hit "Hellboy" in 2004. Still, Del Toro says all his films maintain a distinctly Mexican sensibility.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: "The willingness to mix and match, the transgression of the genres, mixing a war movie with a fairy tale, the desire to not conform, the distrust of institutions, and the celebration of fantasy, all that is very Mexican."

And very Latin American says festival director Ethan Van Thillo.

ETHAN VAN THILLO: "You look at the magic realism made famous by Gabriel Garcia Marquez where you can be both fantastical but at the same time youre rooted as a viewer in the intense gritty reality of what youre seeing there."

"Pan's Labyrinth" does precisely that. It contains both incredible beauty and horrific violence. The violence is never impersonal, perhaps because Del Toro has experienced it.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: "I've been the victim of and the witness of a lot of violence in Mexico, including the kidnapping of my father. So it's not a detached view ever. Even if I choose to do it as an action spectacle in 'Hellboy.' It's never detached."

Being able to maintain a personal style whether the film is a studio backed project like Hellboy or an independent film like Pan's Labyrinth is key to Del Toros success. It also serves as inspiration to young Mexican filmmakers like Cathy Alberich.

CATHY ALBERICH: "He could have made 'Pan's Labyrinth' in English with millions but he decided to listen to his heart and listen to his roots and make it in Spanish."

Tijuana filmmaker Aaron Soto appreciates Del Toro's ability to enter the global marketplace without sacrificing cultural identity.

AARON SOTO: "He can't change Hollywood that's impossible but he's gonna put something from his roots from his culture in American cinema I know he feels like a Mexican director but at the same time I think he feels like a director of the world, he doesn't have boundaries and that's what I like about him. Art doesn't have a nationality."

But pushing boundaries is not always easy. Del Toro confesses that if he wasn't so stubborn he'd have more than a half a dozen films to his credit. But Del Toro is smart, and he knows what he can gain or lose as he moves between independent and studio films, Hollywood and Spain.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: "I never would have attempted to do 'Pan's Labyrinth' in Hollywood because we would have audience tested it and the girl would be alive and well all the way through the movie and we would have a super happy ending with dancing little creatures or something. And by the same token I would never attempt to do something like 'Hellboy' in an independent scheme because then I wouldn't have the scope or the freedom technically to do it. And they are both personal films to me curiously enough.

Now Guillermo Del Toro will find out if any of the mainstream audience that made "Hellboy" a success will crossover to art house theaters to support "Pan's Labyrinth."

Companion viewing: "Cronos," "The Devil's Backbone," "Hellboy"

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