Opens Monday December 25 PAN'S LABYRINTH written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, with Ivana Baquero, Sergi LÓpez, Maribel Verdú and Ariadna Gil. An Odeon Films release. 112 minutes. Subtitled. For venues and times, see Movies, page 91. Rating: NNNNN
When I mention to Alfonso Cuarón that he'll be sharing space in the film section with his friend and compatriot Guillermo del Toro, he's thrilled.
"I love El Gordo we watch each other's films while we're making them. He gave me the ending for Y Tu Mamá También. He made a little fun of me when I did Harry Potter, but he'd like to do one. But only if they'd let him kill Harry."
That pretty much tells you what you need to know about del Toro, the best fantasy filmmaker working in movies today.
While he seems to veer between personal projects like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth and big studio films like Blade II and Hellboy, there is fundamentally no difference between the two they are all dark explorations of subterranean worlds.
Literally. From the subways of New York in Mimic and the sewers of Prague in Blade II to the vividly imagined underground worlds of Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro's impulse is to look as far beneath the surface as he can.
"I hadn't thought of it, but it's true. I think it's a metaphor," he says at the Toronto Film Festival, sitting in a straight-back chair in his room at the Four Seasons. A small table in front of him holds a leather-bound notebook.
"With people, what's most interesting is what you don't see on the surface, so I go beneath the earth to find what I need to tell in my films."
Set in the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, Pan's Labyrinth takes Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother (Y Tu Mamá; También star Maribel Verdú) to a fascist outpost where Mom's new husband (Sergi L&oacuTe;pez) is mopping up the local resistance. Ofelia, under a lot of stress, begins exploring the area around the army post and discovers a subterranean world of satyrs and fairies.
The design of the film's possibly imaginary beings struck me as being influenced by the illustrations of Arthur Rackham. When I ask del Toro about it, I learn why the notebook is on the table.
"It was very important to me to keep the possibility that the fairy world was simply a part of Ofelia's imagination, so the design, for me, had to be something a child could imagine."
He passes me the notebook, which is filled with his notes and drawings for the film. The drawings bear a striking resemblance to what we actually see in the movie, and the text is dense. It's in Spanish, so I've no idea what it says, but there's a lot of it.
Del Toro has made two films in Spain, and both Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone are set during the Spanish Civil War. I wonder if a Mexican director has gotten any hassle from the Spanish for using a key moment in their modern history.
"First, the Spanish Civil War is very important for Mexico. A lot of intellectuals who left Spain when the fascists took power came to Mexico and became a part of the intellectual life there.
"Also, when I came to Spain for the first time to work, I got a lot of encouragement from Spanish filmmakers, especially Almod&oactue;var, who was like my sponsor, so I think that deflected criticism."
PAN'S LABYRINTH (Guillermo del Toro) Rating: NNNNN
This is the best film I've seen this year. Veering between fairy-tale delicacy and vicious political melodrama, as if Arthur Rackham had painted Guernica, it holds together remarkably well.
Like del Toro's other serious film, The Devil's Backbone, Labyrinth is set during the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives at an outpost in the Basque country with her mother, who has come to live with her new husband, the local commandant. Her new stepdaddy is a jackbooted fascist thug (Sergi López in a superb performance). Ofelia then descends into a subterranean world that may be a fantasy projection or genuinely supernatural.