Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)
Director : Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay : Guillermo del Toro
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Ariadna Gil (Carmen Vidal), Ivana Baquero (Ofelia), Sergi López (Capitán Vidal), Maribel Verdú (Mercedes), Doug Jones (Pan / Pale Man), Álex Angulo (Dr. Ferreiro), Manolo Solo (Garcés), César Vea (Serrano), Roger Casamajor (Pedro)
Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), a masterpiece of fantasia by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, is at turns exquisitely beautiful, horrifying, and heart-wrenchingly sweet. Del Toro’s ability to balance all these conflicting tones in a film of such ambitious sweep and bold daring is testament to not only his unique artistry, but also his humanity. As a filmmaker who has worked exclusively in the genres of fantasy and horror (his first film was 1992’s Cronos, a modern-day vampire story, and his most recent film was the 2004 adaptation of the cult comic book series Hellboy), del Toro has carved out a space in which the fantastical and the ordinary can not only interact, but ravenously feed off each other.
Pan’s Labyrinth, which del Toro both wrote and directed, takes place in Spain in 1944, just after a bloody civil war that resulted in the fascist dictator General Franco ruling the country. The film’s heroine is a wide-eyed 12-year-old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who reads fairy tales as a way of escaping from the difficulties of life. Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), has recently remarried and is eight months pregnant. This means that Ofelia’s new stepfather is Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a sadistic officer in Franco’s army who has been taxed with the job of finishing off the remaining resistance fighters who are hiding among the trees in the Spanish countryside. Captain Vidal demands that Carmen and Ofelia join him at a remote military output in the woods so he can be present when his son is born (he is obsessed with his lineage and is insistently confident that the baby will be a boy).
Near the house occupied by Captain Vidal and his men are the ruins of an ancient labyrinth. Ofelia is told not to go near them, but one night she is beckoned there by a large insect that turns out to be a fairy. In the labyrinth, she meets an enormous faun (Doug Jones), who at first appears to be menacing (his spiraling, goat-like horns, milky-blank eyes, and towering gait give him the appearance of something demonic), but is actually a kindly emissary of the underworld. The underworld’s threatening sounding title hides the fact that it is, if anything, an ode to a richer, more beautiful, and more peaceful past--precisely what is obliterated by ideologies like fascism. The faun believes that Ofelia is the reincarnation of an underworld princess who had been lost among the mortals, and she must pass three tests in order to reclaim her rightful place in the kingdom.
Del Toro deftly cuts back and forth between the worlds of fantasy and reality, finding striking parallels between them. Both worlds are fraught with violence and terror, but also strange beauty and the constant hope of redemption. By setting the film at the end of the Spanish civil war, del Toro is able to use the fairy tale aspects of the story to reflect back on Spain’s recent past, not to mention the brutality of human nature. The metaphorical match between the fairy world and Spain succumbing to fascism is not perfect, nor need it be; it is much more about the conjuring of mood and tone, which del Toro does with feverish intensity (he achieved something similar in his 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone, which was a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War).
While del Toro conjures up some frightening images, including an enormous toad that regurgitates its own insides and a pale, gangling, child-eating monstrosity whose eyes are located in its palms, no creature of his feverish imagination compares with the sadistic brutality of Captain Vidal. Vidal is fascism embodied: completely self-centered, cruel, and unrelenting, he is an ogre of enormous, frightening proportions. He inflicts pain on others with sociopathic glee, and he seems completely removed from any identifiable politics other than his own sadistic pleasure.
In this way, del Toro blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, suggesting that the abject evil of fairy tales (usually embodied in some kind of wicked step-something, whether it be a mother, sister, or father) is merely a reflection of the world’s cruelties. Like conventional fairy tales, Pan’s Labyrinth offers a path to overcoming such cruelty, even if victory quite possibly resides in the realm of the imaginary.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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