Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.
Innocent Voices depicts the brutal reality of El Salvador’s 1980 civil war as seen through eyes of an 11 year-old boy who may soon get drafted by the army despite not understanding what the war is about. Though both sides were soldiered with young boys it was the government that actively recruited all 12-year-olds and forced them to fight. Eleven year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla) is about to turn but that doesn’t stop him from trying to enjoy life. Since he’s the man of the house--his father left to earn money in America and never returned--Chava wants a job so he can help his overworked mom (Leonor Varela) who quit her restaurant job to stay home and shield her three children from stray bullets. His first job comes when he stumbles upon an old bus owned by a jovial but careless bus driver (Jesus Ochoa). The two become instant friends as Chava rides the railing and calls out the stops. Meanwhile he discovers love after summoning the courage to ask the teacher’s daughter to fly paper fireflies with his friends. All the while the moment he has dreaded--his 12th birthday--looms large over his days. His Uncle Beto (José María Yazpik) a guerilla fighter on the run tries to convince his mother to let Chava live with him in the hills where it’s safe but she can’t let him go. Once he turns Chava must hide with the other boys when the soldiers come around to recruit. But he grows tired of hiding and takes matters into his own hands running off to join the guerillas where he discovers a fate worse than fighting--that of never seeing his family again. Perhaps the strongest element in the film is the surprisingly mature Padilla. Getting a child actor to perform on any level can sometimes be an exercise in futility but director Luis Mandoki manages to get Padilla able to run the gamut of emotions--joy fear the awkwardness of new love--in a very real and convincing way. While most directors would shy away from placing so young an actor into difficult situations particularly the climactic scene where Chava faces execution and watches his two best friends get shot in the back of the head Mandoki defies conventional wisdom and challenges Padilla who is most worthy of the call. As Kella Varela exudes strength despite her constant worry over her children particularly Chava whose arrival home after curfew causes her to feel rage worry forgiveness and joy in a matter of seconds. Legendary Mexican actress Ofelia Medina has a small but important supporting role as Kella’s mother--she provides her daughter’s family with their last peaceful refuge before their lives are destroyed by the army. Minor characters such as Uncle Beto the Bus Driver and Chava’s classmates all serve their purpose though Xuna Primus the classmate Chava falls in love with handles emotional scenes with Padilla with similar maturity. Innocent Voices marks the first Spanish-language film for Mandoki since the international success of Gaby-A True Story--and he’s back true to form. With Innocent Voices he has crafted a powerful and emotionally gripping film that never shies from the ugly realities of how war destroys families and makes men of boys well before their time. Sharing screenwriting credit with actor Oscar Torres on whom the story is based Mandoki benefits from his strong cast particularly Padilla; a wrong choice in casting Chava could have sunk the film. Mandoki masterfully lulls us into thinking that Chava might have some hope of living a normal life in El Salvador--he plays with friends just like any other kid. But every time it looks as though Chava is experiencing life as he should bombs explode machine guns erupt and soldiers come storming in to remind us that he’s living in the middle of a civil war. Ultimately Chava’s only escape is to America but he must leave behind his family much like his father in the beginning. It’s a nice bookend to Chava’s development: Despite the chaos around him his position as head of the family and the specter of being recruited into the army his real transformation into manhood comes when he finds the courage to strike out on his own.