My recent foray into Oscar-, BAFTA- and every-other-award-nominated films has left me with “movie glow,” that special feeling you have after watching a particularly good film. You are giddy. You can fly. The DVDS that I picked up were Volver (Pedro Almodóvar) and Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro). The similarities between the two, both Spanish-language films with Hispanic directors and featuring young female protagonists, are striking. Like all of Almodóvar’s films, Volver explores relationships between women. The story centres on three generations of women who come from a Spanish village that is animated with ghosts and superstitions, which the women integrate into their modern city lives. The plot revolves around activities that provoke complex emotion: murder, death, sex and incest. Ultimately it is a story about love in its many forms. In one scene, a young woman (played by Yohana Cobo, who was eleven years old when she made the film) waits at the bus stop for her mother, played by Penelope Cruz (who, it was rumoured at Oscar time in 2007, should win an award for best cleavage). The scene is long, and Cobo’s anxiety as she waits will remind anyone of what it felt like to be a child desperate for the comfort and love of her mother, the woman who will make the world right again. At a crucial point in the film, in less deft hands than Almodóvar’s, the film could have gone to the gory and easy. But even in the presence of superstitions and ghosts, he keeps the story in a very real world, where a woman is trying to raise her daughter the best that she can, by working hard and doing everything possible to protect her child.
Pan’s Labyrinth is set in the mountains of northern Spain in 1944, post-Spanish Civil War. The reality of Franco’s Fascists battling the Resistance parallels and intersects with a fairy-tale “underworld” that the young protagonist Ofelia discovers, in which she is a princess. She goes there to get away from home—particularly her mother’s marriage to the relentlessly evil Captain Vidal—and she is guided through the underworld by a grotesque satyr and fairies (not Tinkerbell). This world is as violent as her “real” world, where her stepfather rules supreme—as he reminds a stuttering prisoner prior to a vicious interrogation. Ofelia’s adventures are not Disneyfied. Pan’s Labyrinth is fairy tale as it was originally intended: learn your lesson through a cautionary tale of violence, cruelty and monsters. All of the subplots mirror Ofelia’s experience in her alternate world, and each character, if they looked, would see his or her self reflected in Ofelia. I watched it twice.