Mexican-born filmmaker Guillermo del Toro plants kernels of truth within cornucopias of inspired grotesquerie. In his own words, he makes "eye protein, not eye candy." His chef d'oeuvre — to date — is "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006), the rare fairy tale to win three Academy Awards.
Equally provocative and cathartic, it's an inspired choice for viewing and discussion at the splendid FilmTalk series at the Central Library on Saturday.
Set in 1944 Spain, the story tests the mettle of its 12-year-old heroine, Ofelia, when she travels with her mother to a remote military outpost. There her wicked Fascist stepfather has transformed an abandoned mill into something like Gestapo headquarters.
In a nearby garden labyrinth, a giant faun named Pan ushers Ofelia into a hidden domain and salutes her as its prodigal princess. If she completes three perilous tasks before the next full moon, she can take her royal seat in the underworld.
In 2006, del Toro told The Sun that he had wanted to explore how a person as vulnerable as Ofelia could surmount "the oppression of groups that have joined together in their assumed superiority, which is the fascist mentality." He called "Pan's Labyrinth" a "personal and humanistic" movie "about how important individual disobedience is as a preamble to responsibility."
The movie is a visual marvel, with a depth that goes beyond storybook effects. Del Toro creates a tenebrous visual undertow that pulls Franco's Spain and Pan's labyrinth together. The intricate compositions and details emerge organically from del Toro's view of life as a series of coiling traps that must be mastered or sprung.
Ofelia's beautiful, valiant spirit irradiates her features and makes the audience catch its collective breath. She's no delicate flower and no mere hothouse bloom; she has the kind of pre-adult sensitivity that brings us very close to her. We need her to survive, in one world or the other. We feel that's the only way to preserve some precious remnant of ourselves.
The FilmTalk series screens "Pan's Labyrinth" 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, 400 Cathedral St. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.