Sunday, January 3, 2010

#1 - Fantasy in Wartime: "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) and "The Spirit of the Beehive" (1973)

The first pair of pictures I have for you: Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno), directed by Guillermo del Toro, and The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena), directed by Victor Erice.

Poster pictures taken from here and here.

I promise that I will not to give away any spoilers in these posts. Any plot points mentioned are those obvious at the start of each film.

Both are Spanish-language films set in Spain during the 1940's, when the country was under the fascist rule of Franco. Both also center on the actions and imagination of young girls: the younger Ana (Ana Torrent) of The Spirit of the Beehive and the older Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) of Pan's Labyrinth.

Ofelia begins imagining that she is drawn into a mystical quest by a faun and other creatures, while Ana (in an amazing sequence) becomes so enraptured and affected by a showing of James Whale's Frankenstein that she can't get the film's characters and events out of her head.

However, while Ofelia's fantasy world is shown in detail, we mostly get just verbal and visual clues of what Ana is imagining. The wartime setting is also more evident in Beehive than in Labyrinth, although that is probably due to the different settings: Ofelia is stepdaughter to a high-ranking military official and surrounded by soldiers, while Ana's peaceful family of bee farmers lives nearly isolated in the countryside.

Pan's Labyrinth is faster-paced and more brutal than the languid Spirit of the Beehive. The conflicts between Ana's mother and father are not violent, especially compared to the actions of Ofelia's dictatorial stepfather. But the troubles still run deep and fracture Ana's family. One commentator noted that the family in Beehive is never shown on screen together. Ana has a sister of similar age to play with, but this sister does not care much for Ana's questions about Frankenstein's monster. Ofelia, on the other hand, soon has a baby sister to be responsible for, which gives her a different sibling relationship than Ana has but also conflicts with her fantasy world. Compare the mother and father figures -including Ofelia's faun - in the two films, and you'll find a complex picture of family and what goes into the formation of inner worlds.

Both films are sumptuous to the eye. Pan's Labyrinth is saturated with rich blues and browns, with fantasy sequences filled with red and gold. The Spirit of the Beehive takes place in the country, in and around a beautiful house fitted with windows like the honeycombs the family tends. The painterly film is bathed in a more yellowish gold, accentuated by white and brown walls and furniture.

I'm not sure which film to recommend for watching first in the double feature. While only around 90 minutes long, The Spirit of the Beehive is set at a very tranquil pace. It lacks the momentum of the narrative in Pan's Labyrinth, and needs some patience from the viewer before everything comes together in the last act. It's the type of film I categorize as perfect for a summer afternoon. Watching Pan's Labyrinth first might give you some impatience with the pacing in The Spirit of the Beehive. However, the more shocking impact of the events in Pan's Labyrinth might give you the taste for something relatively more peaceful, where the real dangers are only hinted at before appearing towards the end. It might also be better to see Labyrinth before Beehive so that the act of finding comparisons can maintain your attention during the latter.

Whichever movie you see first, I hope you enjoy both of these film, or at least find something to like in them. They both offer different treatments of the same period in history, and they both give respectful looks at the development and influence of young imaginations in times of conflict.

this image via haxpyslime on tumblr.

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