Guillermo Del Toro really understands childhood. He is aware of the magic and awe that permeates the young imagination, but he is also aware of how terrifying the world can be to a child, and the acute sensitivity to growing up, pain and darkness that plagues the young mind. This potent combination of fantasy, fear, hope and horror is what makes Pan’s Labyrinth such a remarkable film.
In 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a lover of fairy tales, and her heavily pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) move from the city to the countryside to join Ofelia’s stepfather, the ruthless Francoist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who is determined to run the Republican rebels out of the neighbouring woods. They live in a formerly derelict mill that has been converted into a military outpost, where only the servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and the local doctor (Alex Angulo) show Ofelia any kindness. On the evening of her arrival, a fairy leads her into the labyrinth by the mill, where at its centre she meets the Faun (Doug Jones), who believes she is the reincarnated lost princess of the Underworld, and sets her three challenges to ensure she has not turned mortal. These challenges lead Ofelia to magical locations and confrontations with terrifying creatures, while all around her violence erupts and tragedy strikes…
Pan’s Labyrinth is in many ways a subversion of the fairy tale, by changing the evil stepmother to the evil stepfather, combining problems from both the real and the fantasy world, and situating the story in a modern setting as opposed to the Medieval lands that have inspired storytellers and filmmakers since the Brothers Grimm. However, Del Toro, whose love for fairy tales is well known, does not take the fashionable approach of mocking their conventions, but rather aims to capture a sense of genuine magical wonder… and succeeds.
Before his filmmaking friends Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu began the contemporary obsession with the long take, Del Toro brought Ofelia, and the audience, on a tour of the labyrinth with a fairy guiding the camera through winding passages and soaring over walls. The technical aspects are like characters unto themselves, with Guillermo Navarro’s crisp, flowing cinematography, combining with Eugenio Caballero’s production design and the make-up design of David Marti and Montse Ribe (which particularly stands out in the design of the Faun and the infamous “Pale Man”) to make the film feel concretely real, but in a heightened, fantastical way.
While all the actors did an excellent job, Jones and Baquero really stood out to me. Doug Jones’ wonderful performance as the Faun shines through the layers of make-up piled on him, playing him as a spectacularly contradictory enigma, a being as old as time yet full of youthful energy, and with a warm, comforting personality who still makes you feel unsettled. And Ivana Baquero, who was eleven at the time of shooting, gives a luminous performance well beyond her years, playing Ofelia with a sincerity and depth that equals her natural screen presence. She doesn’t need to widen her eyes and gasp to convey wonder, nor weep to convey sadness… she emanates the emotions of her character, and hopefully she’ll continue to do great work in the future.
As remarkable as the intricacy of Del Toro’s craftsmanship is and the imagination of his fantasy world, what truly sets this film apart from other fantasy films is Del Toro’s integration of fantasy and reality. While in the majority of fantasy movies there is a difference between the fantasy world and the real world in terms of the danger present in each one (such as the fantasy being a benevolent escape compared to reality, as is often the case), Ofelia’s fantasy world is as dangerous and real as the guns blazing outside her house. Though this may seem unusual, remember that Hansel and Gretel were suffering from very real poverty and a hard home life before their confrontation with the fantastical witch. The fantasy world may be simpler and more wonderful than the real world, but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of its own challenges or terrifying elements. In fact, I’d say some of the fairy tales we remember the best from our childhoods are the ones with the most terrifying fantasies, such as Hansel and Gretel and The Snow Queen, but they are also among our most beloved.
Also, there is no clear transition between the fantastical and the real. No close up of eyes fluttering open. Ofelia is alone whenever she talks to the Faun. No one sees her going on her adventures and Ofelia hardly ever explains herself. There is no fade between the brutal deaths of two men at the Captain’s hands and Ofelia seeing a fairy in her room. So, is the fantasy all in Ofelia’s head? Is magic real? I personally think Del Toro accepts that magic is real in the film, but leaves only a few clues to suggest the reality of the film’s magic, for those who know where to look.
Whether or not you accept the magic realism of the film will fundamentally affect how you perceive it as a whole; you may see it as a hopelessly bleak film about a young girl’s delusions in the face of crisis, or you may, like me, see it as a film that accepts the violence and darkness of the world while still remaining hopeful in eternal happiness (Alejandro Inarritu described Pan’s Labyrinth as “a truly Catholic film”, and if the film is read in the latter way I think he’s completely accurate). Pan’s Labyrinth may shock you, break your heart, lift your spirits, or do all of these things, but the one thing it will most certainly do is remind you of the rush of emotions you used to feel when you heard the words “Once upon a time…”
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