First published by Film4
Synopsis: In Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning fairytale for adults, fascism struggles to trample an innocent’s imagination.
Review: In the imagination of filmmakers, there is something about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and its immediate aftermath that lends itself to the innocent, often fanciful perspective of a child. So Victor Erice‘s The Spirit Of The Beehive (1973) presented an idyllic Spanish postwar countryside through the eyes of a girl obsessed with James Whale‘s Frankenstein, and Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) seamlessly merged the inexorable advance of fascism with a ghost story unfolding in a rural school for boys.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a sister film to The Devil’s Backbone, and similarly blends historical realism with more genre-bound fantasy elements to create an expansive, visionary and moving examination of Spain’s darkest chapter of the last century.
It is 1944, at the end of the Civil War, a time when idealism and innocence are taking their final, doomed stand. With her father dead, bookish young Ofélia (Ivana Baquero) is brought to the country outpost of her pregnant mother’s new man, the fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who is ruthlessly engaged in rooting out the last remnants of a ragtag guerrilla group hidden in the neighbouring woods.
Vidal’s head housekeeper (Maribel Verdú) and doctor (Ãlex Angulo) are both secretly helping the resistance as best they can, and Ofélia too defies Vidal’s monolithic worldview by retreating into her own fairytale imagination. After following a locust-like fairy into an ancient labyrinth bordering the estate, Ofélia meets the forest spirit Pan (Doug Jones), who sets her three tasks involving a giant greedy toad, the terrifying Pale Man (who devours children and holds his eyes in the palms of his hands), and the shedding of innocent blood. Meanwhile outside, an altogether more real monster awaits, torturing and murdering anyone who stands in his way.
“You’ll see that life is not like your fairy tales.” So Ofélia is told by her mother Carmen (played by the appropriately named Ariadna Gil), in one of several attempts to wean the young innocent off the high ideals and straightforward morality of her beloved fiction, where bravery and purity are rewarded with living happily ever after. Carmen has, after all, allowed herself to become inextricably compromised, marrying her own and her children’s fates to the rise of fascism. Yet in Pan’s Labyrinth, the world of Ofélia’s imagination and the realities of Falangist Spain run in curious parallel as two different, ideologically opposed ways of telling the same story – a story of tyranny, resistance and the timeless struggle between good and evil.
Ofélia’s trials may be fanciful, but the woodland strife, mythical beasts, heroic acts, purloined keys, forbidden feasts and troubled births that constitute their essential furniture all reflect, through a glass darkly, the actual conflicts taking place around her, while the deadly reality of the dangers faced by the girl and others is never in any doubt. The result is a Franco-era Brazil, where events outside and inside the mind gradually become indistinguishable as each allegorises and informs the other, so that the ending can be regarded as both horrifically tragic and redemptively triumphant at the same time – all depending on the limits of the viewer’s own imagination.
From Cronos to Mimic to Blade II to Hellboy, del Toro has always been associated with horror, but even if Pan’s Labyrinth has its fair share of grotesquerie, brutality and visceral shocks, it is a film unbounded by genre, all at once children’s fantasy, adult parable, historical drama and more, located at a magical crossroads where Labyrinth meets The Shining and Land And Freedom meets Ichi The Killer.
Del Toro and his effects crew have crafted an exquisite fairytale world whose phantasmagorical spectacle is never anything less than integral to the film. The performances are flawless (especially López as the clean-shaven face of horror), the transitions from reality to fantasy and back again are beguiling, and the viewer always has the sense of watching something not just gripping, but also of vital importance.
In a Nutshell: In Pan’s Labyrinth, fairytale fantasy and fascist reality vie for the soul of a girl and a nation, in an unmissable celebration of cinema’s capacity to enthrall.
© Anton Bitel