Pan’s Labyrinth

Doug Jones as the pale man in Pan's Labyrinth

It’s not every fantasy film that comes complete with a scene of a brutal fascist captain sewing his own face up, but that’s what you get in Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since The Devil’s Backbone (better, certainly, than Blade II and Hellboy). It’s a dark fantasy reminding us that the Grimm brothers’ original tales were cautionary and soaked in violence and full of the sort of dirty psychological motivation that Disney flirted with in Snow White and Pinocchio. However this youthful experimentation wasn’t to last, and as with the pot reefer and student politicians, Disney, it seems, never actually inhaled. More’s the pity.

No such cutes or evasiveness here, where things start off like some Iberian Alice in Wonderland suffused with the smell of boot leather and cordite, Ivana Baquero playing Ofelia, an 11-year-old stepdaughter (of said fascist captain) who is informed by a goat-faced faun one night that she is in fact not a poor semi-abandoned waif, but a princess. But to ascend to her underworld throne (if that isn’t a contradiction) she must first complete three tasks. The bonus is that she’ll also be re-united with her real father. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Franco regime has won the civil war but skirmishing continues, and even Ofelia’s household is politically divided. And her mother, heavily, hideously pregnant, is struggling in an airless upstairs room to propel the progeny of the remarkably unpleasant officer out of her uterus.

Menace hangs over everything – even the apparently benign faun comes equipped with horns. Some sort of a devil? An allegory of the choice being offered to the apolitical Spaniard, maybe, who was being asked to judge between the competing claims of falangists and republicans – both of whom have killed people? At another level, Del Toro is part of a trend against realism in recent film-making. The Dogme 95 boys Von Trier (The Idiots), Vinterberg (Festen), Levring (The King Is Alive) and Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune aka Mifune’s Last Song) until this point were one of the few shows in town when it comes to formal experimentation – Dogme 95 films being characterised by lack of artificial light, soundtrack, fancy editing.

Lack is the last thing you’ll get in Pan’s Labyrinth. It is exotic, heady and artful, unafraid of excess, a baroque fantasy informed by the overheated look of films by other Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) but also brushed by an almost extinct strand of European fantasy – Powell and Pressburger in the UK, Cocteau in France, Murnau in Germany, Švankmajer in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic or the work that Francesco Stefani did on the East German TV fantasy The Singing Ringing Tree. It’s this mix of the fantastical, the bloody, the vital and the terrifying that makes Pan’s Labyrinth what it is. And not a whiff of whimsy in sight, praise be.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Buy it/watch it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006





Pan’s Labyrinth

Doug Jones as the pale man in Pan's Labyrinth


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



4 December



Francisco Franco born, 1892

On this day in 1892, Francisco Franco y Bahamonde was born. He’d later style himself Generalísimo, or Caudillo, of Spain while he ruled the country, from 1939 to 1975.

From a military family, Franco was the youngest general in Europe in the 1920s, and rose rapidly through the ranks. With the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of a Republic in 1931, the monarchist conservative Franco became increasingly marginalised and in 1936 he led a coup against the elected government. With help from Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany Franco prevailed in the civil war that followed, and went on to set up a fascist state that endured for decades longer than the regimes of his patrons.

In spite of his monarchical beliefs Franco did not restore the monarch, though he did restore the monarchy (a cute touch), preferring to set himself up as de facto king of Spain. He did however, years down the line, nominate Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of previous king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, as his successor.

Franco was a religious conservative who favoured Catholicism, and dealt with “communists” (anyone who disagreed with him) by putting them in concentration camps. He formed alliances with the West, who saw him as a bulwark against the advances of the Red menace, but was eventually forced to liberalise and open up his economy. After years of dirt-poverty, this was enough to generate a steady rise in living standards, the so-called Spanish Miracle.

In sync with the economic cycle he’d generated, Franco was able to hold on to his health only as long as the economy prospered, and in 1975 he died, just as Spain’s economy was tanking along with most Western economies unprepared for the hikes in the price of crude that came with the “oil shocks” of the 1970s.

His successor, Juan Carlos, immediately and, to Franco supporters, shockingly, started to dismantle the oppressive apparatus of Europe’s most successful fascist and engineered Spain’s move towards democracy.




Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir: Guillermo del Toro)

Though the fascists of Franco’s Spain were in power for longer than either Mussolini’s or Hitler’s, longer even than Salazar’s in next-door Portugal, they do not appear regularly on screen. Nazis work better as off-the-peg demons, and the Italian as an easy enemy is complicated by the fact that the country switched sides as the Second World War progressed. As for Portugal, it was so isolated that few people outside the country have heard of Salazar, even now. Guillermo Del Toro goes some way towards addressing the Spanish imbalance in his fierce fantasy taking an often candy-floss genre and imbuing it with all the discomfiting rationale you find in the original stories of the brothers Grimm.

We’re in Franco’s Spain, a place of brutality and ignorance, where Ofelia, a bookish young girl is living in an uneasy relationship with her new stepfather, a fascist army officer who has married her mother because she was hot, and certainly not because she comes with an inconvenient daughter. To escape the rejection, the danger, the daughter creates a world of the imagination, in which she is the princess of an underground kingdom, or at least she is according to the faun and the fairy who arrive to act as gatekeepers to this world. Meanwhile, above ground, by day, the anti-fascist forces are skittering about at the edges of Ofelia’s world, hoping to launch some sort of fight back against an enemy who now has his feet under the table in more ways than one – her mother is pregnant with the stepfather’s child, Ofelia’s replacement.

After so many years of films informed first by the kitchen sink, then by the social concerns of European arthouse, the Dogme movement, and finally the new miserabilism of mumblecore, it is a relief to see Guillermo Del Toro let rip with an out and out fantasy, and one that is so well conceived. And it works better than some Del Toro movies, the arch Hellboy or the chaotic Pacific Rim, because it contrasts its dark fantasy against something much darker – war, fascism, brutal, meaty reality. And yet the worlds blend at the edges, as gothic worlds do, as they did in Del Toro’s fabulous The Devil’s Backbone. Pan’s Labyrinth is a swirling paella of prosthetics, puppets, CGI, brilliant production design and Guillermo Navarro’s dark yet vivid cinematography.



Why Watch?


  • A rare cinematic outing for Franco’s Spain
  • Oscars for cinematography, art direction and make-up
  • A fairy tale for adults
  • A frightening Sergi López as the brutal father-in-law


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Pan’s Labyrinth – buy it/watch it at Amazon

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Zorro: Who Is That Masked Man?

Tyrone Power as Zorro

The Mexicans like their heroes the way they like their tacos – with cheese.
Enter Zorro. Cue mask, cape and ludicrous pencil moustache

Next time you’re in London, try the Robin Hood Zorro restaurant in Hammersmith. This oddly conceived English/Mexican hybrid serves an equally odd drink called the Robin Hood Meets Zorro cocktail. A mouthful to order and a hell of a thing to drink, it contains tequila, gin and beer. The menu doesn’t say it’s served with a bucket, but it probably should be.

What is it about Zorro that seems to bring out the naffness in … well, everything?

It was not always thus. Dial back to the mists of the silent movie era and there’s Douglas Fairbanks Sr, the original screen Zorro, dressed like some gangsta off the streets of South Central LA, doing all his own stunts. If you don’t believe me, watch the Youtube video here and be amazed.

Made in 1920 only a year after Zorro was created in the book The Curse of Capistrano, this is Zorro fresh and vibrant, a Spanish nobleman championing the rights of the little man in the pueblos of Los Angeles in a California that was still a wild dry desert under the Mexican flag.

Dial forward to 1981 and there’s George Hamilton, in Zorro, The Gay Blade, all porcelain veneers and Ronseal tan. A more unlikely example of courageous masculinity it would be had to imagine.

Zorro is America’s first superhero. A re-imagining of the Scarlet Pimpernel – foppish noble by day, man of action by night – he’s the prototype of Batman and every superhero with a cape, a mask and a secret identity. And like Batman, he’s a very easy figure to turn into a camp figure of fun.

Zorro – the thin pencil moustache, the trousers tucked into leather boots, the gaucho hat, the cape, the bandana. You can’t imagine Jason Statham growling his way through a film dressed like that.

Which takes us to Tyrone Power, a famous Zorro of the 1940s, an actor who actually did look good in hat, cape and etc. So good in fact that the rumour factory had soon decided Power was gay. And Zorro the gay blade he remained till his death and beyond.

And from Power, on past George Hamilton (enough said already) to Antonio Banderas. Now no one is going to suggest that Banderas is anything but 100 per cent man’s man – certainly not while there’s a lawyer still breathing on the planet – but his two outings as Zorro are undoubtedly the campest of the lot. “Nobody leaves my tequila worm dangling in the wind”– he says in The Legend of Zorro, legs athwart, arms akimbo, tongue rammed hard into cheek.

And in Shrek 2 and Puss in Boots Banderas turns up again as a cartoon Zorro who’s even more of a joke than his live-action version.

Is it because he’s Hispanic that gringo American productions turn this iconic mother lode of 20th century superhero culture into something of a mother’s boy? Or is it the mask? Let’s face it, it’s not much of a disguise. Who is that masked man? Er, it’s Antonio Banderas, obviously.

Whatever it is the Zorros keep coming – Disney are hatching an animated version, while the Gypsy Kings are planning on opening their musical Zorro in multiple worldwide locations after a box-office bonanza in London.

Whoever that masked man is, he’s making a lot of people a lot of money.

Ten Great Mexican Films

Amores Perros (2000, dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

Three stories collide in the key work of the New Mexican cinema, a gorgeous looking, superheated drama full of macho men, fiery women and fighting dogs.

Amores Perros – at Amazon

Y Tu Mamá También (2001, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

The drama that made Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal internationally famous is a coming-of-age road movie with a philosophical flavour. Maribel Verdu ensures it’s pretty sexy too.

Y Tu Mamá También – at Amazon

El Topo (1970, dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky)

One of the maddest films ever made, a freakish spaghetti western populated with cruel, cackling banditos, pinheads, armless and legless freaks, bare-breasted women and spontaneously combusting rabbits.

El Topo – at Amazon

Midaq Alley (1995, dir: Jorge Fons)

The film that helped Salma Hayek bust – in every sense of the word –out of Mexico into Hollywood is a full-to-the-brim soap given extra wallop by Hayek’s sex-and-drugs storylines.

Midaq Alley – at Amazon

Cronos (1993, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

The breakthrough of director Guillermo Del Toro is a classic horror film about a medieval device that makes the wearer immortal. An offbeat vampire story that’s full of magic realism, humour and horror.

Cronos – at Amazon

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

Del Toro’s best to date, a fierce fantasy set in Franco’s Spain about a girl who escapes the world of her brutish stepfather by entering the realm of a horned and threatening mythical beast. Magical.

Pan’s Labyrinth – at Amazon

El Mariachi (1992, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

Shot in Ciudad Acuñaby by second-generation Mexican Robert Rodriguez on a budget of $7,000, the story of a wandering modern minstrel looking for work. What’s in his guitar case? And why is everyone out to kill him?

El Mariachi – at Amazon

Like Water for Chocolate (1992, dir: Alfonso Arau)

In Mexico a person in a state of sexual arousal is said to be “like water for chocolate”– this beautiful intense love story, in which everyone seems ready to boil over, makes it clear why.

Like Water for Chocolate – at Amazon

Sex, Shame and Tears (1999, dir: Antonio Serrano)

A lively film that will remind some of Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex comedies. That’s if you ignore the fact one of the main characters is a rapist! Weird, disjointed and beautifully acted.

Sex, Shame and Tears – at Amazon

Rudo Y Cursi (2008, dir: Carlos Cuarón)

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna star in about the best film made to date about what happens to a poor boy from nowhere when he becomes a superstar footballer. Funny, believable, tragic.

Rudo Y Cursi – at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2011