This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Julian Spivey
In December I saw something called the “12 Movies Challenge” on Facebook. The premise was that you would have 12 months to watch 12 movies recommended by 12 friends. I don’t often participate in such social media challenges but being a movie buff I felt this might be an interesting way to get out of my comfort zone a bit when it comes to watching movies.
My Facebook buds gave me some films that I’ve been meaning to watch and I pretty much front-loaded those on the list – though not explicitly stated in the challenge rules I am opting to watch one film a month.
A Best Picture winner like “Out of Africa” is an obvious choice for me to get to at some point – that point is now going to be March of this year. But there are certain movies I’m not really looking forward to all that much – I’m looking at you “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” my August selection. Then there’s the acclaimed stuff that isn’t really up my alley like the anime feature “Spirited Away,” which I’ve scheduled for November. That will truly be me getting out of my comfort zone.
Here are the 12 movies recommended to me and the months I’ve assigned myself to watch them:
January: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983)
February: “Till” (2022)
March: “Out of Africa” (1985)
April: “Legally Blonde” (2001)
May: “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
June: “The Birdcage” (1996)
July: “Morning Glory” (2010)
August: “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966)
September: “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
October: “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
November: “Spirited Away” (2001)
December: “The Last Laugh” (1924)
My friend Brittany has been trying to get me to watch Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 Spanish-Mexican historical dark fantasy horror film “Pan’s Labyrinth” pretty much ever since we met.
Despite hearing absolutely nothing but glowing things about the film I had been reluctant to do so for a number of reasons: I’m not a big international film viewer because of the subtitles (I know, bad American, bad!) and I’m not a huge horror film person, especially modern horror with gore.
But Brittany finally got me when I embarked upon this 12 Movies Challenge. And I’m so glad she finally got me to watch “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It’s certainly not immediately going up on my list of all-time favorite films, but I enjoyed it and can confirm what I’d always heard it’s a truly great film.
About some of those things I feared …
Reading subtitles for the duration of the film didn’t take away from the whole of what was taking place on screen as I feared it might – maybe this is the first step into opening up the world of international film for me. I know there’s some Akira Kurosawa (“Rashomon” is one of the few international pictures I had previously seen), Francois Truffaut and others I’ve always been meaning to get around to seeing.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is certainly horrific, but I didn’t find it to be a horror movie. I guess if a film has monsters in it it can be classified as horror – but there’s nothing particularly scary in the film, for an adult at least.
While the Pale Man is certainly creepy and even the Faun, though a “good guy” is creepy looking, the most horrific character in “Pan’s Labyrinth” is without a doubt Captain Vidal, an officer in the fascist Francoist Spain military during the latter days of WWII. He’s ruthless, violent, egotistical and also the new stepfather of the film’s Ofelia, played by the young Ivana Baquero, a child who’s come to stay at the mill Vidal’s men have taken over in an effort to combat guerilla fighters in the area refusing to adhere to the regime with her sickly mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) who’s pregnant with Vidal’s son and he cares more about the well-being of his family lineage than his wife.
Ofelia, who believes in fairy tales though living the furthest life from one, is tasked by a Faun with completing a list of three things – honestly, the fantastical elements of the film are the parts that interested me the least, despite playing an important, yet kind of second-tier aspect in the film. I found myself more interested in what was going on between Vidal and the guerillas, especially the spy factor of Mercedes, played by Maribel Verdu, who was helping the guerillas while being trusted as essentially head maid of the mill.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” could’ve been told as simply a tragic historical drama of Falangist Spain, but del Toro loves the fantastical and also I think you need the fantasy aspect to put a nice bow on the film with its ending, which I won’t spoil, but will say I don’t think you’d get from an American film. It’s too dark I think for a typical American audience.
The three lead performances in “Pan’s Labyrinth” are all terrific. Rarely do I find myself interested in child characters and the performances of child actresses but Baquero, who was 11 when the film was made, does a fantastic job of portraying so many different feelings throughout the film. Verdu is great as Mercedes, a role that proves to be just as heroic as our child lead. But the best performance in the film is Sergi Lopez as the monstrous Captain Vidal, something made all the more fascinating by my learning after I finished the film that he was more of a comic actor prior to his performance in this film. Lopez’s performance is one of the more brutal I’ve ever seen brought to film and helps to really hit home the horrors of fascism.