Two films have been released recently by two auteurs of cinema, both concerned with seemingly incongruous topics when matched together. Guillermo Del Toro's fantasy/war epic, Pan's Labyrinth, is concerned with the struggle of a young girl trying to make sense of the crumbling physical reality around her while creating an enticingly rich one in her mind. Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima, is a stark meditation on honor and death from the point of view of the Japanese forces in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1944. Along with being films that take place in the same historical period, they are examples of directors creating incredibly strong and accessible films, boasting stylistic advances and relatively unknown but profoundly talented casts. Neither film is flawless, but both gamely tackle themes of honor and survival in particularly different ways.
Del Toro crafts his film using two initially diametrically opposed realities. Half of the film is concerned with a rebellious uprising surrounding a fascist Spanish outpost during the tail end of World War II. The other half of the film is concerned with Ofelia, played by Ivana Baquero, who is forced to live in the outpost, as her mother is carrying the child of the captain in charge. Alientated by a lack of warmth from her stepfather and a lack of attention from her ailing mother, she hides in her personal world of fantasy; a world rife with mystical creatures, fantastical missions, and icongraphy increasingly reminiscent of the frighteningly violent world around her. As the film progresses though, Del Toro melds the world of fascist Spain with the rapidly-forming allegorical existence the young girl progressively turns toward. Events that take place, physically and mentally, begin to bleed into each other, as Del Toro intentionally positions the violent fantasy world of the girl's imagination with the all-too-real violence surrounding her existence. Del Toro makes this transition seamless, moving with almost a sauntering grace to a culmination that brings the two worlds into parallel focus, leaving questions unanswered, but ensuring that the emotional resonance of the characters' trajectories finishes intact.
Del Toro directs with startling clarity, doing away with stylistic tricks and artistic veils, instead opting to use only bold visuals and forceful momentum to carry his film along. Accordingly, his cast produces the same results. It is perhaps a boon to Del Toro that his cast is unknown to American audiences; their strong performances are not tainted by preconceived notions the names attached to the characters may bring. Baquero's Ofelia is a neglected girl with a penchant for fantastical situations. Her performance is a careful balance between innocent reverence towards realms beyond our own and steely determination to protect her biological family against the forces, internal and external, that threaten her own life as well as her mother's.
Sergi López plays the captain, a towering figure in the film who is at moments threateningly reflective and at others explosively grotesque in his violent actions. His performance is the flash and bang that Del Toro leaves out stylistically. In embodying his character with such convincing magnitude, López forms the threatening opposite to Baquero's seemingly innocuous innocence.
For his part, Eastwood forms his enormous film, a bookend to 2006's equally huge Flags of our Fathers, around more clearly defined themes, crafting his film as a philosophical treatise wrapped in a stripped down survival narrative. Much of the film is shot in sepia and black and white tones, lending it an aged and dusty look that matches the slightly rambling narrative. Perhaps one of his most stylistically distinctive films, (his past outings, aside from Flags, have visually resembled Del Toro's Labyrinth, fittingly) the shots still remain basic and strong, focusing on the characters' ranges of emotions while letting the coloring lend it a distinctive and evocative quality.
The story follows the fall of the Japanese forces in the Battle of Iwo Jima, but it focuses mainly on the lives of the benevolent and worldly General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played by established actor Ken Watanabe, and a reluctant baker turned soldier named Saigo, struggling to survive the American invasion, played by relative newcomer, Kazunari Ninomiya. Eastwood focuses more on Saigo's tribulations as he travails across the island, coming to grips with issues of national pride, military duty, and personal honor. The journey is harrowing, and both actors anchor the film with sterling and believable performances, but Eastwood seems to struggle throughout Letters with the rest of his enormous cast. While the film never falters under the weight of its ensemble, Eastwood once again exhibits a need to work with a select few, as he did to incredible and award-winning results in Million Dollar Baby. Many of the characters in Letters are muddled and almost forgettable as individuals. While the power resonates long after viewing, the particulars of the film begin to cloud in Eastwood's latest, as much as the bleak colors merge and fade throughout the film.
As Eastwood continues to exhibit surprising longevity of creativity and clarity in his directing, it seems that Del Toro is just hitting his stride with his latest creation. While Labyrinth exhibits more forceful virtuosity, Letters, faults aside, still has an emotional heft that is undeniable. Both films wrestle with intense themes, images and performances, and each is an example of directors forming fully conceived cinema during an already packed awards season.