Mainstream Success of Del Toro Film May Bode Well for Spanish-Language Cinema

'El Laberinto del Fauno' Has U.S. Record Box Office

Spanish film poster of 'El Laberinto del fauno'

This article was originally published in February 2007.

For those of us who are learning Spanish or enjoy using it as a second language, there is perhaps no easier and more fun way to become familiar with the varieties of spoken Spanish than to make the movie theater a "classroom." Spain, Mexico and Argentina all have active film industries, and filming sometimes takes place in other countries of Latin America as well.

And when you get a chance to see their films, you can experience Spanish as it is spoken in real life.

Unfortunately, those chances don't happen very often in the United States and many other English-speaking areas, especially if you don't live in a major city that has at least one art-house theater. Typical suburban and rural movie theaters seldom, if at all, play Spanish-language movies.

But could a change be coming? For the first time in a decade and a half, a Spanish-language movie has broken out of the movie ghetto of art-house aficionados and native speakers. In early February 2007, El laberinto del fauno, also known as "Pan's Labyrinth," passed $21.7 million is U.S. box office receipts, making it the most successful Spanish-language film of all time in the U.S. The record was previously held by Como agua por chocolate ("Like Water for Chocolate"), a Mexican romantic drama period piece.

That doesn't exactly put Laberinto in blockbuster territory, but it does put it in the upper stratosphere for foreign-language films, Mel Gibson productions excluded. Laberinto was in the top 10 at the box office for three weekends before breaking the record, and in wide release it was showing on more than 1,000 screens nationwide.

Laberinto's success can be attributed to several factors:

  • Unlike many art-house Spanish-language films, such as most of those made by Spain's Pedro Almodóvar, Laberinto has an accessible story line. There's no convoluted plot, no necessary-to-understand deep symbolism, no cultural references to confuse the foreign viewer. Even if you go to the movie not knowing who Franco was, you'll understand the motives of the soldiers in this movie.
  • Unlike some art-house Spanish films whose sexual content is so strong they get an NC-17 rating (for adults only in the U.S.) and thus won't be shown by many mainstream theaters, Laberinto has none. While the violence is extremely strong, that is less of a barrier to widespread showing of a film than explicit sex.
  • Several martial-arts foreign-language films have drawn large audiences in recent years, and the use of subtitles hasn't seemed to hurt Gibson's success as a film director. Perhaps American audiences are becoming more accepting of the ideas of subtitled movies.
  • This film is rich in visuals, not dialogue. So there is less subtitle-reading required than in many other foreign films, and very little is lost in the translation.
  • Although they're not household names, the film's director, Guillermo del Toro, and one of the stars, Doug Jones, were already known to American audiences for 2004's "Hellboy" and other films.
  • Laberinto had the backing of Picturehouse, a major motion-picture studio.
  • The film garnered six Academy Award nominations, a fact played up in advertising.
  • For better or worse, this film was promoted while underplaying the fact it is foreign-language film. According to accounts in various Internet discussion groups, many people arrived at the theater not knowing they would be seeing something in Spanish.

As upbeat as all that may sound in terms of seeing a better selection of Spanish-language films at your local theater, at least three factors work in the opposite direction:

  • Almodóvar's Volver had many of the same things going for it as did Laberinto: It is said to be the most accessible of Almodóvar's films, it had major studio backing, and one of the stars, Penélope Cruz, has strong crossover appeal. Yet the film struggled to get over $10 million at the box office, about the maximum for a top art-house film, and has yet to reach much of the mainstream audience despite Cruz's Academy Award nomination as best actress.
  • English remains the dominant language of the film industry, even in areas where Spanish and other languages are spoken, so there's little incentive to put a lot of money into a Spanish-language film. Not all that long ago, I visited a multiplex in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and all the movies save one were in English. And that one exception was María llena eres de gracia, a U.S. production.
  • Even though some 30 million U.S. residents speak Spanish at home, that market has yet to be specifically exploited in a major way by the major film studios. In many U.S. communities with a large Spanish-speaking population, it is easier to find (especially in video stores) cheaply produced Mexican movies than quality productions that might appeal to a broader English-speaking audience.

So what will 2007 bring? At this writing, there are no Spanish-language blockbusters on the horizon. That's not surprising, however; specialty movies that stand the best chance of picking up a mainstream audience tend to be released in the U.S. late in the year, as were El laberinto del fauno and Volver, in part so they can pick up buzz from the various film awards. The good news is that the success of del Toro's film shows that the right Spanish-language film can find an audience, even in the U.S.

For my take on El laberinto del fauno as a movie and some linguistic notes on the film, see the following page.

Guillermo del Toro's imaginative El laberinto del fauno has become the most popular Spanish-language film ever to show in the United States. And it's little wonder: The film, marketed in the U.S. as "Pan's Labyrinth," is a visually stunning, extremely well-crafted tale that skillfully mixes two disparate genres, being both a war film and a children's fantasy.

It is also disappointingly unsatisfying.

While the film's marketing has stressed the fantasy aspect, this is no children's movie. The violence in the film is brutal, even more intense than that of Schindler's List, and the film's villain, the sadistic Capitán Vidal, played by Sergi López, comes as close as can be to evil incarnate.

The story is seen mostly through the eyes of the captain's stepdaughter, Ofelia, convincingly portrayed by 12-year-old Ivana Baquero. Ofelia moves with her late-term pregnant mother to northern Spain, where Vidal is in charge of soldiers defending the Franco regime from well-organized leftist rebels. While Vidal sometimes kills for the sake of killing, and hypocritically indulges himself while countrymen are starving, Ofelia finds her escape in a world where she is seen as a potential princess — if only she can fulfill three tasks. Her guide in the world, which she enters through a labyrinth near her new home, is a faun played by Doug Jones — the only non-Spanish-speaking actor in the movie (his words were seamlessly dubbed in).

The girl's fantastical world is frightening and reassuring at the same time, just like you might expect for the nightmares of a 12-year-old. It's incredibly detailed, and the visual feast it provides belies the film's reported $15 million (U.S.) budget, little by Hollywood standards but a major investment in Spain.

Most of the film's action takes place in the historical world, where the captain must contend with betrayal from his inner circle as well as a stubborn leftist insurgency. Vidal shows no mercy to his foes, and the film at times becomes excruciating to watch for anyone who hasn't become insensitized to torture, war injuries, up-close surgery and arbitrary killing. And in a side plot that calls attention to the fairy-tale aspects of the overall story, Vidal awaits from Ofelia's mother the birth of a son, to whom he hopes to pass on his pathetic legacy.

The combination of the two film genres comes across as less of a split personality than might be expected. Del Toro ties the stories together primarily through Ofelia's character, and both worlds are filled with danger and an utter lack of comic relief. Although not really a horror film, it becomes as frightening and suspenseful as the best of them.

In a technical sense, Del Toro's El laberinto del fauno is filmmaking at its best. Indeed, some critics have called it the No. 1 film of 2006, and it garnered six well-deserved Academy Award nominations.

But it nevertheless is a disappointment: Laberinto lacks a moral point of view. Several of the major characters show incredible courage, but to what end?

Is this all there is to war, or to a young girl's dreams? If Laberinto has any statement to make, it's this: Whatever meaning you find in life ultimately doesn't matter. Laberinto offers a great journey that is certain to become a cinematic classic, but it's a journey to nowhere.

Overall rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Linguistic notes: The film is entirely in Castilian Spanish. As shown in the U.S., the English subtitles often appear before the spoken word, making it easier to understand the generally straightforward Spanish.

For those familiar with Latin American Spanish but not that of Spain, you'll notice two main differences, but neither should prove to be a major distraction: First, it is common in this film to hear the use of vosotros (the second-person familiar plural pronoun) and the accompanying verb conjugations where you'd expect to hear ustedes in most of Latin America.

Second, the main pronunciation difference is that in Castilian the z and the c (before e or i) are pronounced very much like the "th" in "thin." Although the difference is distinct, you probably won't notice the differences as much as you'd think you might.

Also, since this film is set in World War II, you'll hear none of the anglicisms and youthful lingo that have permeated modern Spanish. In fact, with the exception of a couple choice epithets loosely translated to English in the subtitles, much of the Spanish of this film isn't all that much different than what you might find in a good third-year Spanish textbook.

Content advisory: El laberinto del fauno is not appropriate for children. It includes numerous scenes of brutal wartime violence, and some less intense violence (including decapitation) in the fantasy world. There are plenty of perilous and otherwise frightening scenes. There is some vulgar language, but it is not pervasive. There is no nudity or sexual content.

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