Criterion Project #23: PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

Pan’s Labyrinth

Spine #838

Year: 2006

Director: Guillermo del Toro

As I ponder this write-up, I won’t pretend to know the history of the atrocities depicted in this film. Title cards at the outset inform us we’ve been transported to Spain in the year 1944, which places the events after Franco’s fascist regime had overthrown the Spanish democratic republic in the Spanish Civil War. To understand the terms “fascist” and “democratic” is enough to grasp the circumstances the characters find themselves in and the gravity of the decisions they make. It may be a fairy tale, but it’s certainly not for the weak stomached.

At its very core is a tale of innocence, namely of our protagonist, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). However, the hellish land she’ll have to traverse is as much of a character as Ofelia, and seemingly shed its innocence long ago.

The synopsis, courtesy of IMDB:

In the Falangist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.

Terminology aside, director Guillermo del Toro makes sure anyone watching the film is aware of what’s at stake and which side you’re rooting for. He has one of the most visually creative minds I’ve witnessed in cinema, seemingly able to conjure imagery teeming with equal parts horror and beauty at will. And the themes he probes here go perfectly hand-in-hand with the symbolism and visual imagination at the helm.

The film opens with Ofelia and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who is several months pregnant, as they are about to arrive at their new home, the military compound of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a high ranking officer in the new fascist regime and one of the most wretched villains to ever grace the silver screen. I can recall seeing this film in theaters upon its initial release and not being prepared for the level of evil oozing from his every pore, which is a testament to both del Toro, who wrote and directed, and the performance of Sergi Lopez. He is cruelty personified.

We are also introduced to Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), a member of the resistance who oversees the day-to-day at the compound and secretly aids the rebel militia hiding in the mountain forest up the hill from the military base. With Ofelia’s mother so far into a troubled pregnancy and weakened by her obligation to her new husband, Mercedes becomes Ofelia’s surrogate mother figure – one not afraid to stand up to Capt. Vidal. Ofelia spends her days reading books, mostly enrapt in fairy tales, not concerning herself with the horrors of her war-torn country. Before long she finds herself participating in a fairy tale of her own when she is whisked away to a stone labyrinth where we meet the mysterious and magical faun (Doug Jones), who tells Ofelia she is a lost princess who has forgotten her former home and must complete three tasks by the next full moon in order to return to her kingdom.

Equal importance is given to each of the stories, with the harshness of her real life being reflected in the nightmare creatures she must face in order to complete her tasks. It’s a perfect blend of del Toro’s harrowing visuals and unique storytelling. Simply put, the film is a horrific fairy tale set during a time in Spanish history when innocence had all but vanished from the landscape. The tasks laid before Ofelia are all tests of her character, where she must prove she has maintained the essence of her ethereal nature, with each one getting more nightmarish than the last.

The flip side of the coin is Capt. Vidal, typifying the evil that feeds on and strangles the innocence Ofelia represents. He is a scrupulous, principled man. Despite his rank, del Toro paints a picture of Vidal as a man who doesn’t use his authority to have others perform his will. He shines his own boots, meticulously shaves with a straight razor, obsessively cleans his broken pocket-watch, and carries out his own brutal impulses – including viciously murdering innocent people and even torturing prisoners with his own hands. His father, also a high ranking officer, was killed in battle and smashed his timepiece on a rock at the moment of his death so his son would always know the exact time his father died. It’s a legacy Capt. Vidal intends to live up to. The reason Ofelia and her mother come to live at the compound is one of pride – Vidal needs a son to carry on his name and Carmen is the vessel for his ultimate goal.

Ofelia, as well as Mercedes, stand in opposition to the vile man her mother now refers to as her father – a term Ofelia vehemently refuses to acknowledge. She is truly a heroine for the ages – both noble and flawed. When she begins her tasks we are stolen away to places we’ve never dreamed of – cursed mountains, enchanted trees, and deadly lairs seemingly dormant but dripping with malice. The creatures on display are truly the work of a brilliant visual filmmaker, with Doug Jones inhabiting two of the most frightening and unique monsters I can remember – playing both the faun and the utterly terrifying Pale Man. The latter is born from the imagination of a twisted genius.

At the forefront is the battle for lost innocence. The guerilla fighters are a representation of the Spanish people stripped of freedom and banished to live in destitution while fascism festers in heart of the country, squeezing the life out of its people. It’s a major testament to del Toro’s storytelling that we are equally invested in both Ofelia’s journey and that of the resistance fighting for their livelihood. The film is listed on IMDB under drama/fantasy/war, a rare combination of genres.

Much of the film is bathed in either beautifully desolate blues, or warm, glowing amber hues coupled with dazzling cinematography. As a visual storyteller, Guillermo del Toro is tough to match. The film has the look and the feel of a living fairy tale unfolding before your eyes. The world Ofelia ventures into is equally beautiful and terrifying, a perfect encapsulation of the dichotomy of the real world she would rather leave behind.

With each task we’re treated to more and more allegorical imagery, culminating in the ultimate sacrifice in opposition to the ultimate evil. Without one side of the coin or the other, the film wouldn’t work. But because both Ofelia and Capt. Vidal are allowed so much depth of character and the imagery and themes on display are so strong, it fires on all cylinders. Again, the melding of script with the visual character is the perfect blend and I’ll always hold this film in high regard for its outstanding execution.

At this point I’m in danger of running into hyperbole in order to describe my affinity for Pan’s Labyrinth. There are a few clunky bits of the story that fall a tad short for me, but they’re so few and far between that my nit-picks are easily brushed aside or forgotten altogether. I’ve now seen this film about a half-dozen times and I’m honestly looking forward to the next half-dozen in the coming years. It’s a special film from the mind of a truly unique and gifted filmmaker. My cinema loving heart is all the more full for it.

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