The portrayal of history's monstrous human beings — and God knows there are plenty of them — is hard for movies to do well. Make them too terrible and they become almost campy in their extremity, easy to laugh off and dismiss. But try too hard to humanize and you risk excusing their outrages or romanticizing them.
Two ambitious new movies, The Last King of Scotland and Pan's Labyrinth, tackle that challenge in wildly divergent yet creative ways.
King, directed by Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void and various other documentaries) and based on a novel by Giles Folden, is a psychological portrayal of Uganda's jovially murderous real-life dictator Idi Amin. It features a mesmerizing star turn by Forest Whitaker.
Pan's Labyrinth, which is set as the Spanish Civil War has ended in 1944 — yet guerilla resistance remains — is at its core a condemning look at the cruel fascists who won. Its imposing male lead is a fictional character, Capitan Vidal, but based on the ruthless military officers who swore allegiance to Generalissimo Francisco Franco. But the director/writer, Mexico's Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Cronos), has his roots in horror, and he parallels that story with a darkly surreal, symbolic fantasy involving a 12-year-old girl and a mysterious, supernatural faun. (The R-rated subtitled film most definitely is not for children.)
Amin actually had a fascination with Scotland, perhaps because he hated England. So King creates for him a fictional foil, a rail-thin young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) who is lured to 1971 Uganda out of a sense of adventure.
Garrigan first hears Amin speak following a coup at a rural rally. Afterwards he finds himself in the middle of an auto accident in which Amin's entourage has struck and injured a cow. It's staged like something out of Brian de Palma's The Untouchables or Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, where an unpredictable character's threat of violence so permeates the atmosphere your stomach knots up waiting for the explosion.
Garrigan grabs a guard's gun to kill the injured cow and at first Amin is furious at being startled — his glare alone could kill. His soldiers are ready to massacre everyone in sight. And then he lets up. He learns Garrigan is Scottish, and he responds enthusiastically and warmly. It isn't long before the latter becomes Amin's personal physician and confidante.
All that Whitaker's terrific performance is to become is in that scene: The way he can switch back and forth from bone-chilling, dread-inducing anger to garrulous friendliness. Whitaker has a gentle "lazy eye," a broad smile and a laugh that draws everyone close (especially during a bizarre press conference staged by Amin). But he also understands how to make every word threatening and to justify the bloodiest of his deeds. His Amin is Shakespearean.
Garrigan, alas, isn't. His dialogue is crisply written (one of the screenwriters, Peter Morgan, also wrote The Queen) but his ongoing innocence is hard to buy, as is his foolishness in pursuing an affair with one of Amin's wives (Kerry Washington). Nevertheless, the final scenes that incorporate his escape into the (true) Entebbe airport hijacking help King rise to the level of taut African political thriller á la The Dogs of War.
Filmed in the most muted, dim colors possible by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, the Goya-esque Pan's Labyrinth turns strange early on when young Ofelia (Ivan Baquero) and her sick, pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are traveling through the countryside to meet the mother's new husband, the captain (Sergi Lopez).
Ofelia wanders into the woods and is enchanted by a walking stick-like insect that follows her. "A fairy," she cries. Except it doesn't look like a fairy to us — it's creepy and vaguely sinister. But it does eventually transform itself into a fairy, leading her to a labyrinth where a short-tempered, garrulous faun greets her as a princess and asks her to undertake arduous tasks.
This might remind you of The Odyssey. At one point a creature with eyes in its raised hands chases her around like the Cyclops. The faun (Doug Jones) is tall, stands like a man and speaks in wonderfully intoned Spanish but has a head with curled horns, a spiral indentation on its forehead, exaggerated eyes and a smile that frequently turns contemptuous. (All the creatures in Pan's Labyrinth are memorable in appearance.)
But her real world is worse. The captain is a humorlessly sadistic authoritarian as willing to torture captured rebels — this is also a bloody thriller about guerilla warfare — as he is to make demands of his sick wife or stepdaughter. He is a thug who controls a country, which del Toro clearly sees as the tragedy of Spain under Franco.
And yet Lopez's performance is so understatedly realistic and stoically sober that he makes the captain a human being. When he stitches up his slit lip after a rebel has sliced him with a gutting knife, he first watches the blood spill out from trying to sip a drink. Most men would collapse in horror or pain, but he goes on. There is something about his dedication to his Darwinian beliefs in being strong to survive that grounds his fascism in our violent world.
However, the director never viscerally connects his two stories into one seamless movie and it begins to seem at a certain point that he, rather than his characters, is pouring misery onto the girl.
Yet he does make a philosophical point that totalitarianism can invade and corrupt even a child's fantasy life. One has to respect del Toro for wanting to go there in search of a somber truth. Last King of Scotland grade: B; Pan's Labyrinth grade: B