Truly, honestly, earnestly, I wanted to like Pan's Labyrinth. I wanted to see Guillermo del Toro, the migrant Mexican filmmaker, find his way back from his comic-book forays in the mainstream, Blade II and Hellboy, back toward the intimacy and "independence" of his Spanish Civil War ghost story, The Devil's Backbone, never mind all the way back to his gangbusters beginnings, Cronos (his only legitimate Mexican production) and Mimic. Set once again in the Civil War period, more precisely WWII period, his new film centers on a preadolescent girl (wide-eyed, plump-lipped Ivana Baquero) chided by her nine-months-pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil, very intense) as too old to be still filling her head with the "nonsense" of fairy tales, especially since she has moved beneath the roof of her wicked stepfather (Sergi López, campily over the top), a Francoist martinet busily stamping out rebels in the woods, who has little tolerance for a child of another bloodline but is eager to get his leather-sheathed hands on his biological baby in his wife's womb. Much more welcoming of the little girl, aside from the simpática housekeeper, is the mythological faun (real or imagined?), the guardian of the off-limits garden, who identifies the newcomer straight off as the prodigal daughter of the King of the Underworld (what are the odds?), and who, to test her bona fides, sets her Three Tasks from the Book of Crossroads to be completed before the Full Moon. These, although no less forced and formulaic, are less arduous and elaborate than the three tasks, for instance, faced by Harry Potter in his most recent screen outing, but the incautious little girl makes them more difficult than need be.
Del Toro, almost in spite of himself, is not altogether guiltless of conventional, parental, puritanical strictures against fairy tales. And against fiction in general. In his scrupulous, perhaps overscrupulous, balance of dark fantasy and brutal history, tilted (poli- tically, diplomatically) a little toward the latter, he leaves nothing to chance. He establishes the Importance of his theme through the unassailable realm of Fascists and freedom fighters, and he connects that world to the parallel universe of fairy tales in a way that can best be termed didactic, academic, studied, possibly stifling. He makes a case. He does not make magic. Far more than The Devil's Backbone, the film that kept coming to mind, always to this one's disadvantage, was Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, 1973. That one, having in common a post-Civil War backdrop and a gullible little girl, made very much the same points, together with others, and made them more subtly, more ambiguously, more poetically; made them, I might add, while Franco was still in power; and made them without recourse to special effects beyond a Halloween get-up of Frankenstein's monster. (I was interested to note that del Toro, when corralled for the "Seen on DVD" column in these pages, cited Frankenstein as a personal favorite. It seems certain he would know Erice's hommage to it.) Del Toro never lets his special effects, some of them pretty tacky and icky, take over to the same extent as in his Hollywood movies, but a mere black-gloved sadist, even with an open gash on his cheek, has a hard time holding his own against an arboreal goat-god, an insectile pixie, a featureless humanoid with eyes in the palms of his hands, an obscene giant toad, a Tim Burton-esque airless sunless tangled landscape, and so forth. The primary sense of wonder the whole thing arouses in me is the wonder that so many grown-up critics have found it so enthralling. I found it fairly alienating, if not totally off-putting. Having seen it a full three months ago, I would not be jumping the gun in deeming it unmemorable.
As a rule, I expect much less of del Toro's compatriot, Alfonso Cuarón, who by the way co-produced Pan's Labyrinth, and I suspected that the raves for his concurrent Children of Men must have come from critics defending their past misjudgments. (A Little Princess, Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, all had their wild enthusiasts.) I got much more than I expected. The basic idea — from a novel by P.D. James, a departure from her detective fiction — of a worldwide plague of female infertility, even though not at all original (see The Handmaid's Tale, as a prime example), remains nevertheless a potent metaphor for that science-fiction staple, the End of the World; and the film can thus sensibly refrain from hashing over the significance of a miraculous pregnancy in England, as inexplicable as the plague itself, eighteen years after its onset in 2008. A potent metaphor, that, for Hope, even Faith. The young black woman's deadpan protestation of virginity is of course only her own little joke. What she is carrying is not the Second Coming of Christ so much as that of Adam. Or, as it happens, Eve. Forget, for now, the need of a mate. First things first.
Because the world went so fast to hell so near in the future — "Only Britain soldiers on" — the film is not overburdened with production and special effects. It shoulders just sufficient texture and detail for an illusion of reality: the unswept litter and uncollected trash in the streets, the electronic animated billboards, the pirated artworks preserved for no one's edification at the Tate Modern, the gratis government-issued suicide kits (brand name: Quietus; ad slogan: "You Decide When"), the concentration camps for illegal aliens (the director's nationality adds a layer of meaning), etc., etc. And let's not even count the redundant ashen pallor of the image. There is really not much in the way of a story — underground dissidents squiring the expectant mother through chaotic countryside to an offshore rendezvous with a shadowy do-good organization known as the Human Project — but Clive Owen, the principal squirer, an uncommitted mercenary, has the ideal demeanor for the grimness of the mission; and the trek is nothing if not eventful, a mild word for an itinerary that includes three virtuoso action set pieces: an ambush of the getaway car on an empty road through the woods, an attempted flight at the break of dawn in a car whose engine won't turn over unless (like the one in Little Miss Sunshine's VW bus) the vehicle is in motion, and a raging firefight in the coastal port at the spot of the rendezvous. If Cuarón's camera sometimes calls attention to itself with its showboat mobility, and at one point with its blood-spattered lens, his staging of the action is always thorough and thought-out. As, for that matter, is his staging of the nonaction, in particular the hero's interplay with his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) and an aged flower-child friend (Michael Caine), abubble with emotional undercurrents. The director's moderation in the use of closeups, a rarer and rarer thing these days, disdains the easy way out.
Discussion of Letters from Iwo Jima will have to be put off until another day. For the brave few who saw Flags of Our Fathers, however, it is, as they say, self-recommending.