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Wonderful DVD set; WARNING SPOILERS!!
on 19 March 2007
This DVD set is wonderful value, released to tie in with the DVD release of 'Pan's Labyrinth' (2006) it also gathers together two related films from Mexican film-maker Guillermo Del Toro.
'Cronos' (1993) **** is an interesting take on the vampire genre, made on a relatively low budget like the early work of Robert Rodriguez it gives life to a genre sometimes close to parody. 'Cronos' was an extremely stylish work and is worth checking out if unfamiliar with Del Toro's earlier work or you'd like to see a novel take on the genre. In many ways this feels analogous to Poppy Z Brite's literary spin on the vampire cycle, the thoughtful side of vamp films, file alongisde 'The Addiction' and 'Near Dark.'
Del Toro then worked on the problematic 'Mimic' (1997), the experience of which made him want to produce a work that was much more personal, which he had control over. The result was the Almodovar-produced 'The Devil's Backbone' ***** By chance, I was lucky enough to catch an advert for this when at a cinema in Birmingham - the stylish advert (on the DVD) ensured that I watched the film. Set during the Spanish Civil War, 'The Devil's Backbone' is set in an orphanage run by republican/leftist sympathisers Carmen and Casares. A bomb has landed in the orphanage, but has not exploded and the young orphan Carlos arrives, his parents apparently killed by Franco's fascist forces. Upon arrival, Carlos begins to see the ghost of a child (Santi) as well as having to contend with the bullying of his peers. On a wider level, older orphan Jacinto (the great Eduardo Noriega) is using teachers Conchita and Carmen with an eye on the elusive gold hidden in the orphanage. All the while, Franco's forces get closer and Santi's ghost makes itself more apparent...
I thought that 'The Devil's Backbone' was a much better ghost story than 'The Others' or 'The Sixth Sense', despite the fact its focus is primarily on the orphanage and the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. There are some great twists along the way, plenty of tragedy and some cold examples of the war reminiscent of Klimov's 'Come and See' or Spielberg's 'Schindler's List' (the execution of republicans)- something that would recur in 'Pan's Labyrinth.' The final scene as the children march towards an uncertain future as a ghost watches over them is powerful, the ghost story and the Spanish Civil War coming together, refelecting against each other...
'The Devil's Backbone' lead me to Orwell's key text 'Homage to Catalonia' and Anthony Beevor's 1982 book 'The Spanish Civil War' - which has been re-worked with new evidence and information as 'The Battle for Spain' (in hardback, paperback due in a few months). It is very interesting to read about this war to provide a wider background to 'Backbone' and 'Pan's Labyrinth', though not essential. I think both these films are more succesful than Ken Loach's 'Land and Freedom.'
Del Toro returned to Hollywood for more mainstream work as he developed what would become 'Pan's Labyrinth', making the slick 'Blade II' (2002) and the undervalued 'Hellboy' (2004). I guess he was probably offered mainstream/franchise vehicles, which he would no doubt been great at, but instead he opted to make 'Pan's Labyrinth' (the booklet here notes the fact he is now working on a sequel to 'Hellboy', a bit like Graham Greene he appears to be balancing "entertainments" with more serious work).
'Pan's Labyrinth'***** is set several years after the Spanish Civil War, located in a military outpost as the partisans camp out in the mountains and woods, a guerrilla force against Franco's victorious forces as World War II continues (a reference to D-Day is made). The central character Ofelia arrives at the outpost with her pregnant mother Carmen, the latter afflicted with health problems and having remarried the cruel Colonel Vidal. As Carmen's pregnancy continues and health problems develop, the staff of the outpost appear to lead secret lives, relating to the partisans and their defeat, meanwhile Ofelia (a compulsive reader of fairytales) becomes obssessed with the labyrinth at the outpost.
It is here that she later meets a fawn called Pan and some faeries, the notion that she might be a Princess returning to her kingdom on a higher plain is there (laid out in the opening sequence). Ofelia has to complete three trials to establish that she is that Princess-turned-human, if succesfully completed, she can go to her utopic kingdom. Ofelia goes through the tests, the second of which feeling like a blend of Jean Cocteau, David Lynch and Hellraiser. The common fairytale trope of the evil Stepfather occurs, one scene where Vidal murders two partisan suspects is stomach churning stuff redolent of the opening murder in 'Irrerversible.'
Things end in tears, it was always going to be that way - betrayal, death and torture reign - is it possible that Ofelia is imagining Pan and the labyrinth to escape the daily horrors of life in Spain then? You wonder about children in the Balkans in the 1990s and Iraq now...A lot of 'Pan's Labyrinth' is a war film, similar in feel to one of the most grim war films, 'Come and See' (Ofelia feels like a relative of the central child in Klimov's masterpiece). The denoument occurs as battle between the fascists and the partisans happens, the world of Pan and the world of Ofelia combining. It depends on what kind of person you are as to how the film ends - is it a cold death, just another corpse among the thousands of others, or is the fantasy world real, or maybe a representation of heaven? The end feels like a higher plain and reminded me of David Lynch and Cocteau's 'Orphee' for some reason (the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and the paintings of Goya have also been cited - this film made me go back and read some Angela Carter and Bruno Bettelheim's 'The Uses of Enchantment').
'Pan's Labyrinth' is a work of genius, definitely Del Toro's masterpiece and both a companion and extension on the earlier 'Devil's Backbone.' It was the best film of 2006 and has won many awards, though not as many as it should have won. A great work of fantasy this should appeal to adults and teenagers, the next step on from Harry Potter and located in one of the dark chapters of history (I would have liked reference to Hitler and Mussolini's involvement in the Spanish Civil War, but this is a film not a documentary). A visually astounding film, 'Pan's Labyrinth' balances special effects perfectly with a thoughtful story and a mass of characters. This DVD set contains a film that everyone should see, as well as Del Toro's earlier works that are slightly overlooked - great value and comes highly recommended...