Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) concerns a young girl in Spain, 1944. After her widowed mother marries a sadistic fascist captain, she escapes into a magical, faerie underworld, but it's a world which may prove as dark as the real one. Alternatively, the film may concern a denizen of the faerie realm, trapped in the form of a young girl, who struggles to return home.
Director/writer Guillermo Del Toro’s deft blending of brutal reality and magic fantasy is remarkable. The shifts do not seem abrupt, and events in each world comment on the other. The film also does a remarkable job of weaving together different narrative threads into a complete piece. Gradually, we glean why Ofelia's mother has married the Captain. We see their new, comparatively luxurious life contrasted with conditions in post-Civil War Spain. We learn about various characters' relationships with the local rebels. And we escape with Ofelia into dark, magic places that exist on the border of the familiar.
The idea of someone using imaginative stories to escape from a bleak world, in a way which enhances our understanding of that world, is not new. Many of the elements in the film will be familiar to those who have read many myths and faeries tales—- or watched movies or played games inspired by the same.1 Del Toro’s handling of these elements plays as relatively fresh, however, thanks to the design of Ofelia’s netherworld and the setting of fascist Spain.
If you intend to see Pan's Labyrinth-- and I enthusiastically recommend that you do-- you may wish to stop reading this review now.
Del Toros has crafted a powerful and often violent film. The violence is disturbing when it occurs because, though often severe, it is not needlessly emphasized, nor does the film present brutality as rollicking fun. He cuts from scenes of torture, but only after showing enough for us to feel some of its effects. Death the film serves up freely, but the camera does not linger on the bodies. Pan's Labyrinth tries to personalize each passing, giving us moments with the characters that allow us to see even relatively anonymous casualties as people.
Ofelia's fantasy world, shaped by her dark circumstances, runs more than a little gothic. The faeries who befriend her first appear as large insects, something akin to giant walking sticks. Her guide, satyr crossed with dryad bearing spiral tattoos, becomes at times a sinister figure. Ofelia's quest has her crawling through the dirt beneath a decaying tree, where she encounters a monstrous toad. She must also face a grotesque boogeyman who might give an adult nightmares.
The film features strong performances from the entire cast. I believed in the Captain's sadism; he is the kind of lowlife whom brutal regimes and wars can elevate. Most remarkable, however, is 12-year-old Ivana Baquero, who gives an accomplished performance as the film's protagonist.
The special effects are seamless and the story, impressive. It is not, however, a perfect film, and on a couple of occasions, events happen because the script requires them. I was willing to accept Ofelia eating the grapes, since she is a child, hungry, and that is the sort of thing people inevitably do in faerie tales. However, I had trouble believing that rebel mole Mercedes does not murder the captain when she has the chance. It contradicts what we know about her character and the rather desperate circumstances she faces in the barn. Instead of killing him, she merely injures his body and pointedly mutilates his face (the Captain takes obvious pride in his appearance). Clearly, Del Toro wanted the captain alive for the conclusion. It strikes me many other ways exist to write that scene that would arrive at the same outcome.
These minor plot problems should bother few viewers. Del Toro's film creates a magic, mythic world for an adult audience-- this is not a film for young children-- and the conclusion reminds us that even those who die young may influence the world in subtle, memorable ways.
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro
Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
Ariadna Gil as Carmen Vidal
Sergi López as Captain Vidal
Yolanda Vazquez as Mercedes
Maribel Verdú as Delores
Doug Jones as Pan, Pale Man
Álex Angulo as Dr. Ferreiro
Production design by Eugenio Caballero
1.The fact has led to heated discussions at the Internet Movie Database, where various posters claim that Pan’s Labyrinth copies this film or that source. Search and you’ll even find someone who believes the use of the mandrake root was ripped from Harry Potter, you know, where it "first" appeared.