Don’t take the chil­dren

Guillermo del Toro crafts a har­row­ing but mean­ing­ful fairy tale

Bangkok Post - - En­ter­tain­ment -

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.

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