My love affair with world cinema began nearly a decade ago when I watched French hit, Amelie (2001). Previously I had been reluctant to watch any film with subtitles, worried that it would hinder my enjoyment of the film. How wrong was I to be so naive? Since Amelie I have spent more time in the world cinema section at HMV than any other part of the shop and enjoyed a range of films from South America, Africa, Europe and East Asia. Discussing all my favourites would take many blogs but over the next ten days I will share what are currently, for me, the Top Ten World Cinema films. The standard of world cinema is very high with such gems as Ikiru (1952) and Let The Right One In (2008) missing out on the Top Ten. For those of you that haven’t tried world cinema I hope some of these films will be of interest. Those of you that are veterans in this field, I’m sure you won’t agree with all of my choices but I’ve no doubt you’ll appreciate a celebration of what is often an overlooked section in DVD shops.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo Del Toro’s dark fantasy lost out to The Lives of Others at the Academy Awards but such a setback does not diminish what is a stunning piece of world cinema, combining fantasy elements around the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) to great effect. The film conveys one girl’s need to escape into her imagination from the horrors surrounding her only to find their influence impacting even on her own fantasies. The girl in question, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), joins her heavily pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), on a journey into the mountains where her stepfather, the evil Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is scouring the surrounding forest for insurgents still fighting in opposition to Franco and his fascist regime that won the Civil War five years previously.
While Vidal and his soldiers mop up resistance in the forest, Ofelia’s mum is largely confined to bed where her pregnancy becomes ever more difficult. Ofelia wanders the surrounding grounds and finds a stairway leading into a labyrinth where she meets a faun (Doug Jones) who informs Ofelia she is the princess of a fantasy realm who ran away and has been sought ever since by her concerned parents, the king and queen. The faun wishes for Ofelia to return to her kingdom but in order to do so she must complete three tasks to prove her worth. Ofelia is presented with a book which, when opened, has blank pages that soon fill with images and instructions for her to follow.
Pan’s Labyrinth depicts post-war Spain as particularly brutal, especially with Captain Vidal leading the attack against the rebels. In one scene his men have captured a father and son wandering the nearby forest who claim to be hunters looking for rabbits. After a brutal interrogation resulting in both father and son being murdered, Captain Vidal searches their belongings and finds dead rabbits, corroborating the men’s initial claims. Unmoved by his mistake, Vidal simply requests that his men be more vigilant in future and avoid wasting his time. Even worse is a captured rebel facing torture and interrogation by Vidal who is told if he can count to three without stuttering he’ll be released. In a painfully long exchange, the prisoner struggles to two but stutters terribly on reaching three leaving Vidal free to unleash his pent up fury. Such violence filters through into Ofelia’s fantasy world where each of her tasks involves something dark – retrieving a key from the stomach of a toad and surviving an encounter with the fearsome Pale Man whose surrounding walls reflect its appetite for children. The faun itself appears quite fearsome and imposing, especially when angered but in completing the tasks he has given to Ofelia, the promise is of a world better than the one she currently lives in.
Pan’s Labyrinth covers some intriguing storylines with the heavy emphasis on fantasy in trailers of the film being far from the reality. Fantasy does play a big part but it is Vidal’s battle against the insurgents as well as the conclusion to his wife’s pregnancy that take centre stage. There is the added complication of informants among Vidal’s staff who have close ties to the nearby rebels and whose lives are at risk if Vidal discovers their loyalties. As Ofelia comes to the last of her three tasks, the fight between Vidal and the rebels also reaches its climax. The film offers a somewhat brutal and shocking ending but, unusually, this ending is open to debate dependent on the audience. It is possible for two people to watch Pan’s Labyrinth and one concludes that the ending is happy and the other concludes it is extremely sad. I won’t say which ending I think it is, you’ll have to make your own choice.
Top Ten so far:-
4) Pan’s Labyrinth
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