- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

“Pan’s Labyrinth” opens in area theaters today. But I’ve been hearing raves about the film for quite some time, and from rather distinguished quarters.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film “Babel” took home best director and jury prizes at Cannes and is up for a slew of Golden Globe awards, including best picture and best director. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” is at 91 percent on the critical opinion meter RottenTomatoes.com, making it one of the best-reviewed films of the year.

But during their separate visits to the District this season, both directors took time out from promoting their own films to ask if I’d seen the work of someone else.

Mr. Inarritu assured me I’d be blown away by “Pan.” Mr. Cuaron marveled, “Isn’t it amazing? That ending is so fantastic. … Very powerful.”

These are some strangely uncompetitive filmmakers — and very good friends.

Mr. Inarritu, Mr. Cuaron and “Pan” director Guillermo del Toro all hail from Mexico and all are in their early- to mid-40s. While they’ve left their native land, they remain friends who have established Mexico as a hotbed of film talent.

“It must be the water,” laughs Mr. del Toro.

“There is a fierceness in how we express ourselves that comes from need and hunger,” he says more seriously. “When Alfonso and I started doing films 25 years ago, it was almost impossible to make a Mexican film. It was almost unheard of for a Mexican film to open in America. So we came out of adversity. And I think that makes your voice stronger.”

All three of these men have distinctive voices. Mr. Cuaron’s success directing film and television in Mexico led to work in America helming 1995’s “A Little Princess” and 1998’s “Great Expectations,” both adaptations of British novels. He returned to Mexico for 2001’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” a sexually charged road movie that became an international hit and garnered him and his brother Carlos a best screenplay Oscar nomination. His last feature was 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third in the franchise and reportedly author J.K. Rowling’s favorite.

Mr. Inarritu’s first feature, 2000’s “Amores Perros,” explored Mexican life through interconnected stories involving a car accident. Its success — it received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film — brought him to the U.S. to direct the critically acclaimed “21 Grams,” which again connected three stories through a car accident. Stars Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro received Oscar nominations for their performances.

Director del Toro made his debut with the 1993 horror film “Cronos,” the first of his many collaborations with American actor Ron Perlman. The fantasist went on to make popular comic-book adaptations “Blade II” and “Hellboy” in this country. His last Spanish-language film was 2001’s “The Devil’s Backbone,” a ghost story set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.

Mr. del Toro’s voice is everywhere evident in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the most imaginative film of 2006. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a piece of magic realism set in Franco’s Spain. Mr. del Toro set out to restore the dark edge of classic fairy tales, influenced by “Time Bandits” director Terry Gilliam, whom Mr. del Toro calls “one of the greatest filmmakers alive.”

The underworld of “Pan” features some remarkable creatures. Mr. del Toro began doing makeup effects for his short films. He was so good, friends asked him to work on their films. “I decided to study it formally as a way to finance my first movie, ‘Cronos,’ ” he says. “All my life circles around monsters.”

The worst monsters in “Pan” are human, though. “Since ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ had come out before 9/11, everything I had to say about brutality and innocence and war and childhood went out the window. So I said I’ll create a sister movie,” Mr. del Toro says. “We try to personify evil. We try to say, ‘Pinochet was evil,’ or ‘Franco was evil,’ or ‘Hitler was evil.’ But it is not only them, it is the society that allows them to exist and the people that support them.”

Individuals, he believes, shouldn’t let themselves off the moral hook. “The movie speaks about the need for disobedience, the need to be your own boss, the need to make your own choices and be responsible for what happens after,” he says.

“Babel,” “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” are very different films. But their makers see them as linked. All three remark that parent-child relationships are central to their themes. “I guess it has to do with the fact all of us were parents,” Mr. Cuaron says. “We have a constant concern about the next generation.”

“Alfonso puts it very beautifully: It’s ideas getting in the way of people,” Mr. del Toro says of the three films. “There are things that he says sometimes that I adopt, like a credo.”

For his part, Mr. Cuaron insists of Mr. del Toro, “You will see that he’s way smarter. And he’s funnier.”

And while Mr. Inarritu raved about “Pan’s Labyrinth” when he was in town, Mr. del Toro declares, “I know who the Mexican filmmaker is, it’s Alejandro … Alfonso and I have struggled for years and years and years to create a vocabulary. Alejandro came out on his first movie and changed the way I see films.”

Mr. Cuaron speaks for all three when he says, “What makes me the happiest and the proudest with this whole thing is the three films, more than just my own film.”

They don’t just talk about each other’s work after the fact, though. “We like to stick our forks in each other’s salads,” says Mr. Cuaron. “We are always collaborating, we are always talking with each other from the moment we’re conceiving the stories…. There is so much of Guillermo and Alejandro in my film.”

Sometimes that collaboration is direct. Mr. Cuaron reports, “Guillermo went to Alejandro’s cutting room and Alejandro went to Guillermo’s cutting room and they cut 10 minutes out of each other’s films.” Those two are based in Los Angeles, while Mr. Cuaron splits his time between London and Italy.

The film business is a dog-eat-dog world, so these three are notable for their collegiality. “Most of the time you end up hating the people you could learn the most from,” Mr. del Toro acknowledges. “That’s why I don’t like film festivals that are competitive. Which is a better movie, ‘Borat’ or ‘United 93’? They serve different functions, they tell different tales.”

He adds, “Awards are like a night of sex at the disco. You wake up the next morning and wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’ ”

As I left the interview suite, Mr. del Toro couldn’t resist posing a question of his own: Which one of the three filmmakers had the worst accent?

Perhaps these three aren’t quite as uncompetitive as they seem.

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