Film of the decade

The decade round-up continues, having gained an objective air that fits uneasily with the argument in my first post in the series. Yet another example of my endless hypocrisy, friends! The reason for the shift is straightforward. I feel comfortable when my ideas, reactions, obsessions, loves, are shared by people cleverer than me, so I advance them more forcefully. If other people think this, then I'm allowed to make maximalist claims about it. The Wire is the greatest television show ever, partly (mainly? only?) because everyone thinks it is the greatest television show ever. There is no such consensus behind Silent Alarm. Why I don't know. I think it's better than Is This It? or Turn On The Bright Lights, but can I trust that feeling? Bloc Party came after the Strokes and Interpol, but for me they were the game-changers. For the clever people writing those best-of-decade lists, it was the other way around. Maybe that's all it comes down to. Anyway, I felt isolated, so that's why I had to shoehorn some autobiographical justifications for my choice. Just so you know.

Anyway. My pick for best film has a consensus behind it. If by consensus you mean resident BBC film critic, and most adorable middle-aged fanboy in the universe, Mark Kermode. He says this film is the new Citizen Kane, so I'm pretty happy giving it my top spot. Drumroll...

Pan's Labyrinth - Guillermo del Toro (writer/director)

A fellow Wire fanatic and I once spent a good three minutes actively trying to pinpoint some aspect of the series that didn't work. We could only engage with the challenge on the level of pedantic nitpickery -- that line could have been delivered better, that shot could have been more interesting. All the major, structural building blocks -- the characters, the themes, the plotting, the look, were faultless. Perfect.

The last time I watched Pan's Labyrinth I set myself the same challenge. The only thing that stuck with me was a single crane shot sweeping up above the forest canopy to the sky, which I thought was colour-timed too blue. That was it. A NOTHING of a criticism! Laughable in its absurdity!

Pan's Labyrinth is quite literally a perfect film. Its definite, fully-formed shape reminds me of the control Alan Moore exerted over Watchmen. Del Toro's vision is crystal. He knows exactly what he's doing. Nothing you see or hear in Pan's Labyrinth is an accident. Every frame is a symbol. The windows, the furniture, the shape of the trees, are all imbued with meaning.

And it's a feast of a film. Every shot swoops you up from underneath and throws you headlong into the fantastic, gothic, tense, creepy, surreal world of Franco's Spain. The camera is almost singing a lullaby to you, casting you adrift, floating you through the fairy-tale. And the colours are hyperreal, bright golds and reds, and mysterious blues and violets, depending on the world you're currently exploring. And the monsters: knobbly, slimy, fleshy, physical. And meticulously designed. The Armchair Critic has come up with some convincing interpretations of the symbolic significance of the three tasks Ofelia has to face.

But what ultimately clinches Del Toro the top spot isn't the much talked about individual details, but the big picture. Pan's Labyrinth sets up two parallel avenues of interpretation, the secular and the fantastic, and keeps them open throughout the film. In using this structure, the film explores the link between a frightened girl's imagined fairy tales, and the origin of religion. Del Toro's lapsed Catholicism is all over Ofelia's return to her father's golden kingdom. The paternal God, the maternal Mary, the sacrificed child. And below, the goat-legged tempter (though the faun is more of a Old Testament Satan -- not a malevolent devil, but a good-natured trickster). The film shows how these bedtime stories, myths, fables, grow out of a real historical setting. It celebrates the transformative power of our imagination.

But it does more than that. Ofelia performs her secret missions in a Spain torn apart by civil war. The two sides are drawn with a fitting childlike fairy-tale simplicity -- the ruling, oppressive, bloodthirsty fascists, and the downtrodden, selfless, brave socialists. Anti-authoritarianism is the film's most obvious and powerful theme. Even religious authority is suspect -- the village priest shares Captain Vidal's table. In mirroring Ofelia's trials with the struggles of the resistance, Del Toro is stressing that all authority is a work of imagination. It is a lie that comforts us, but is ultimately a pretext for oppression. Our imaginings are seductive and dangerous. They can imprison people. Pan's Labyrinth draws up a manifesto for a new anti-authoritarian imaginative project, where everyone is free to build a religion of their own.


  1. Anonymous28.12.09

    I could agree with you more.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.