This film has been described as “a fairy tale for adults” for its interweaving of fantasy and myth into the fabric of a reality that is as cruel as it is ugly (this “magic realism” is an indigenous strain running through the art of director/writer Guillermo del Torro’s native Mexico). The setting is Spain in 1944; Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is an imaginative girl of about 11 years with an active fantasy life inspired by fairy tales, though her sickly mother tells her that the time has come to put away childish things. We meet her on a carriage ride bound for a fort in the mountains, where she and her mother are to join her fascist stepfather (Sergi Lopez), a captain for Franco determined to crush the ragtag remnants of the antifascist resistance, leftovers from the Spanish Civil War holed up in the woods surrounding the camp. Ofelia’s mother is expecting the Captain’s baby but might not survive the birth. At the camp Ofelia meets the Captain’s maidservant—secretly in love with a resistance fighter, she’s played by Maribel Verdu, who so unforgettably personified pleasure in another, very different, film about the life force versus death: Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien”.
Ofelia’s visions are never an idyllic refuge: they’re dark, slimy, dirty, bloody, fraught with danger. She encounters a monster whose eyeballs fit into its palms, so visually disturbing that when I saw a still of it in a magazine (prior to knowing anything about the film) I was startled enough to exclaim to myself, “Yeesh, what on earth is that?!” The film’s fantasy set pieces abound with homages to classic children’s literature, fairy tales and myths, including to the “Alice” books, the greatest of them all. Actually, I could’ve done with more of Alice’s type of dream world, which harbored not just menace but that other aspect of imagination—absolute freedom, where any mad thing can happen.
A fairytale must have a cruel stepparent; this one’s got a real-life monster in the sadistic Captain. The character made me think of Renoir’s famous line in “The Rules of the Game”: "You know, in this world there's one thing that's terrible: that everyone has their reasons." It’s a scary axiom, meaning as it does that people can rationalize anything; but it seems to me that if their work is to give us any truth or understanding, crafters of character (i.e., actors, writers, and directors) must locate those reasons in their characters. Here del Torro and Lopez give us a fascist who “has his reasons”: a defender of traditional values, a foe of ideas that are, by his lights, dangerously false, even unnatural (such as the idea of equality amongst humans).
“Pan’s Labyrinth” earns its belief in magic—or at least the human need for it in the form of stories—by its uncompromising toughness. Its moments of extreme violence make us feel the longing for life viscerally, in the pathetic gesture of a wounded man holding his hand up in front of the Captain’s gun. Its ending is at once achingly sad and exultingly lovely, as Ofelia refuses to allow the Captain to write the ending to her narrative; it implies that such is the power of imagination that it can even effect a kind of victory over death.
This film is up for best foreign language film and best original screenplay, as well as four other Academy Awards.
- Feb 4, 2007