Don’t take the children
Guillermo del Toro crafts a harrowing but meaningful fairy tale
Washington — Guillermo del Toro was asked to direct The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but he turned it down because, as a lapsed Roman Catholic, he couldn’t see himself bringing Aslan the lion back to life.
Instead, he put his dark, fervid imagination to work on an original story, El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), a bloody and harrowing fairy tale that incorporates elements from C.S. Lewis’ beloved Christian allegory and various other classics of children’s literature.
Set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, El Laberinto del Fauno shows why del Toro’s sensibility is somehow both perfectly suited and utterly alien to the gentle Narnia. He subjects his hero, an 11-yearold girl whose mother has married a captain in Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s army, to shocking violence and vexing moral quandaries.
‘‘I’m not proselytising anything about a lion resurrecting. I’m not trying to sell you a point. I’m just doing a little parable about disobedience and choice,’’ del Toro said. ‘‘This is my version of that universe, not only Narnia, but that universe of children’s literature.’’
Del Toro, 42, a native of Guadalajara, is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron, two other Mexican film-makers who’ve enjoyed international success this decade. All three released acclaimed movies in 2006 — Babel from Inarritu and Children of Men from Cuaron.
The comparisons are inevitable because the three men are friends (Cuaron was a producer on El Laberinto del Fauno), but del Toro stands out for his arresting visual style — he uses colour as evocatively as any contemporary film-maker — and his commitment to exploring mature themes through fantasy.
Comic fans know del Toro from Blade II — easily the best in the series — or Hellboy (he’s in preproduction on the sequel). Arthouse habitues may have discovered him in 2001 with the release of El Espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) — his first Spanish Civil War movie, a ghost story set in an orphanage. Horror cultists may adore his 1993 feature debut Cronos, a bizarre, allegorical vampire tale.
In El Laberinto del Fauno, young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves with her ailing, pregnant mother to an encampment in northern Spain where her stepfather, Capt Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is rooting out what remains of the Republican resistance. She retreats into a magical realm guarded by a capricious, menacing incarnation of the Greek god Pan (Doug Jones), who tells her she might be a long-lost princess.
Del Toro ‘‘is not just a film-maker; he’s a film watcher’’ , said Jones, a creature specialist who also appeared in del Toro’s Mimic and Hellboy and plays two roles in El Laberinto del Fauno.
‘‘He’s a fanboy first, and he only makes movies that he really wants to watch, and he’s got excellent taste,’’ Jones said.
Dressed in a black from head to toe, with wirerimmed glasses and a bushy but well-kept beard, del Toro is droll, articulate and profane. Consider his comparison (with expletives removed) of El Laberinto del Fauno, a defiantly adult fairy tale, with more innocuous children’s fare.
‘‘I do think there is far more an immoral position in creating a movie like Free Willy, where I’m telling a kid, you know, ‘If you swim next to a ... killer whale, she’ll become your friend.’
No! She will eat your ... guts and spit you out!’’
Del Toro continues in a more reflective vein: ‘‘If my child watches my movies by accident, they won’t try to think the world is a safe place, which it’s not. Children should know the dangers of the world and not be neurotically isolated from them.’’ According to the director, Ofelia is an amalgam of himself and his 10-year-old daughter. His movies frequently incorporate autobiographical elements and centre on children whose parents are absent or dead. Although his own parents are alive and he says he has a good relationship with them, he was raised largely by his conservative Catholic grandmother (‘‘She was like Piper Laurie in Carrie,’’ he observed). ‘‘I’ve spent the rest of my life recuperating from my first 10 years,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a brutal time of learning, and I think that I tried to bring the violence that I felt — moral, spiritual and even physical — into the movies.’’ Violence has persisted into his adult life. In 1997, his father was kidnapped for ransom in Mexico, and was released after 72 days of torturous negotiations. The kidnapping sent del Toro into exile. With his wife and two daughters, he divides his time between Los Angeles and Madrid, and he hasn’t worked in his native country since 1993’s Cronos. But the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) provides a fertile and personal subject for del Toro, who soaked up the work and the politics of the Spanish artists and intellectuals who sought refuge in Mexico during the period of Franco’s oppressively right-wing and dictatorial regime. Fascists, then, make great bogeymen in his movies, and he makes no apologies for the borderline- cartoonish sadism of Capt Vidal, the villain in Pan’s Labyrinth. ‘‘I think that in these movies, these characters work mostly as types. Hellboy is a type. He’s not by any stretch of the imagination a Dostoevskian, threedimensional, psychologically profiled hero. He’s a type. So is Vidal. So is the girl,’’ del Toro said. ‘‘I have never been interested in working in the real world or with real characters.’’ Lopez, as Vidal, is a handsome, charismatic leading man which, in del Toro’s universe, makes for an ideal fascist. ‘‘I think the best people I’ve ever met are people full of defects, and the worst people I’ve ever met are people obsessed with being perfect,’’ del Toro said. Despite the demands of the fairy-tale universe, Ofelia’s journey — framed by the brutality of war and a damaged, imperilled family — remains wrenchingly real. It shows the trauma that ideological strife can inflict on children and their reserves of maturity in times of crisis. It’s that amalgam between a heightened milieu and genuine emotion that leads Jones to treasure his collaborations with del Toro. ‘‘Even though he’s got monsters and fantasy creatures and fantastic things happening within his stories,’’ Jones said, ‘‘his stories to me really do reflect the average, everyday human experience’’.
Film director Guillermo del Toro during an interview in Washington. His new film, ‘El Laberinto del Fauno’ (Pan’s Labyrinth) opened on limited release in the US yesterday.