Spain has given us an Inquisition by which all others are measured, funding for the voyage of Columbus, a compelling Civil War, tapas culture and a growing Spanish cinema. Although Smackdown would never want to minimize the importance of good tapas, today we put two highly imaginative Spanish films head-to-head (cabeza-a-cabeza). Even passive filmgoers have probably heard of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which won Oscars in foreign film just last year. It’s a visually mesmerizing political allegory which enters the ring today against “Carmen,” Carlos Saura’s flamenco spectacular. Both failed in their wide release, but enjoy arthouse, theater/pub cult status. What makes them alike is their blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy.
Fifteen minutes into “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Guillermo Del Toro’s labor of love set in Franco’s turbulent, war-torn 1944 Spain, I was convinced this writer/director/producer had crafted the kind of film you only find once every few years, a “Mystic River” or “Crash.” Del Toro (“Hellboy,” “The Devil’s Backbone”) wastes no time in opening his fable, and we are quickly enthralled with the plight of a recently fatherless young girl, Ofelia (Juana Baquero) whose shallow mother unwittingly brings them into mortal danger via her marriage to a cruel Captain in the Spanish Army. Aside from the fact that the Captain’s unit is stationed in a remote area close to the Spanish Resistance where an attack may come at any time, the Captain himself (Sergi Lopez) is a cold monster in a pressed uniform, who views his pregnant wife only as a babymaker for the son he wishes, and his stepdaughter as mere excess baggage, both easily expendable. The final danger is the fantasy: the station lies next to an ancient stone Labyrinth, where Ofelia’s presence awakens a dazzling, yet ominous world of fairies, fauns and goblins. Ofelia finds herself on a quest to find if she is the Princess this netherworld has awaited for centuries. Her failure or success there will resonate in the real world, deciding the fates of Ofelia, her Mother, and as-yet unborn brother. Herein lies the dilemma: Does the quest and the inhabitants of the Labryinth exist on some plane unseen by the unworthy, or are they the escapist imaginings of a precocious girl, in response to a peril she couldn’t handle, otherwise? Del Toro does a nice job of keeping you guessing, but the world outside the Labryinth is so violent and grimly depressing, and the one within so captivating , in a darkly beautiful fashion, that we long for the movie to spend more time exploring the incredible sets and one-of-akind creatures that dwell there. But Del Toro has a political message to deliver and he insists it arrive with harsh, unrelenting real-world images we’ve seen many times before from “The Sorrow and the Pity,” to “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.”
The Defending Champion
Carlos Saura’s “Carmen” — a visually stunning film made on a low budget — involves the famed dancer Antonio Gades’ desire to produce and costar in a flamenco stage version of the classic story of lust, betrayal and murder. He has a talented troupe of musicians and dancers ready to realize his vision, but lacks the perfect woman necessary to portray the alluring, destructive title character. The result of his search is a talented, bewitching ingenue, with, coincidentally, the first name Carmen (Laura Del Sol). Or is it coincidence? Is Gades making the musical “Carmen”, or really living a modern-day tragedy of the ‘Good guy ruined by Bad girl’? Is Carmen simply a spoiled young dancer or the knife-wielding temptress herself? Saura never lets us know, but we don’t really care, as this is not central to the film. The main attraction here is Dance, and aficionados are not disappointed. Saura has assembled the finest Flamenco artists of their time, and collaborates with choreographer Gades to bring us several jaw-dropping numbers that perfectly display the power and drama of this unique art form. The film’s weakness stems from the fact that its best number, a showstopper with Del Sol seducing Gades on a stage ‘bedroom,’ comes halfway through the movie, leaving the second half a post climax.
I went into “Pan’s Labyrinth” prepared to smack it down with the Jim Henson Company’s “Labyrinth,” the ’80s era children’s film (Jennifer Connelley, David Bowie) about a young girl’s fanciful adventures in a land of make-believe. “Pan’s Labyrinth” didn’t rise to that comparison because it only teases us with this underground Oz, before revealing its true aim, to send a political message amid the trappings of a fairy tale. Honestly, it’s only a perfect date movie for nostalgic fascists. Still, if you see it without the fantasy expectation, there is plenty here to compel and intrigue, even if you favor democracy. “Pan’s Labyrinth” won Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction, and Makeup, and the entire package is first-rate, especially the beguiling performances from its actors. On the other hand, “Carmen” is arguably one of the best ‘Dance’ movies of all time, with charismatic lead performances, and a soundtrack that imaginatively blends music from the Opera with beautiful flamenco guitar. One film offers a glimpse into a fantasy world never before seen, and the other a look into a world that we knew existed, but have probably never visited.
Okay, let’s say for the sake of argument, the tapas are hot, the DVD player is back from the shop and you’ve got time for one Spanish film, but only one. What should it be?
In spite of its flaws, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” with its breathtaking imagery, will appeal to a wider audience, and takes the fight. Unless you’re a dance lover, and particularly a flameco dance lover, “Carmen” is the also-ran here. Besides, “Pan’s Labyrinth” will go great with Andalusian battered squid…