Pan’s Labyrinth

starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu and Doug Jones
written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
rated R for graphic violence and some language.
Do you remember the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Good people died. Children got eaten. And even when the story ended well, it probably traumatized you somewhere along the way. This is the spirit in which El Laberinto del Fauno, or Pan’s Labyrinth (written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, best known in this country for 2004’s Hellboy), was conceived. It is a marvellous and breathtaking creative effort, introducing conventional fairy tale elements into one of the most important ideological conflicts of the twentieth century to produce an enchanting and terrifying fable for adults.

It is the summer of 1944, and Ofelia, a young girl, is traveling to northern Spain with her very pregnant mother so that they can be near her new stepfather, CapitᮠVidal, when the child is born. Vidal is a brutal military officer in the Spanish army who has been stationed in the area to eradicate a small rebel militia that is hiding out in the woods, stubborn holdouts from the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia is a bookish kid, used to enduring the usual admonishments that she stop filling her head with nonsense.

Her active imagination is in little danger of starvation in her new surroundings, however. The run-down mill where Vidal has set up his base of operations is right next to an ancient and mysterious stone labyrinth. She has been at the mill for less than 24 hours, in fact, before she receives her first midnight visit from a fairy who leads her deep inside the labyrinth for a meeting with a very shifty-looking faun. The faun reveals that Ofelia is, in fact, the long-lost princess of a fairy kingdom, and in order to return there she must prove herself by completing three tasks of increasing difficulty before the next full moon.

As Ofelia begins her quest, Vidal sadistically tightens his grip on the local community to increase the pressure on the rebels, members of his household play their own dangerous game of aiding the enemy, and Ofelia’s mother experiences frightening complications to her health as she prepares to give birth. If ever a child needed a fantasy world to escape to, Ofelia certainly does, but in an interesting twist, the horrors of her tasks parallel the atrocities committed by her new stepfather. Before she can truly escape, she will have to face terror and evil head on.

The film is very dark, both in content and visuals. The people behind the camera seem grimly determined to hold each shot during the film’s most gruesome moments long past the point where most movies (and, indeed, most moviegoers) would have gladly turned away. What some might view as a lack of restraint, and possibly even good taste, on the part of the director is also incredibly effective in communicating the stakes to the audience. The characters are right there in the midst of it, and all but the most desensitized of viewers will be forced to invest heavily in their plight or walk out.

Additionally, of course, there is an element of contrast at work here. Ofelia’s innocence and the virtue of the rebels and their allies are thrown into sharp relief against the background of evil, both human and monstrous, which they struggle against. Nor is Ofelia helpless in this struggle, although she may seem young, weak, and naive. Underscored by the film’s tagline: “Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot Imagine,” this theme is developed throughout Ofelia’s adventures. The more terrible evil is shown to be, the more potent the force that defeats it will seem.

Pan’s Labyrinth has been nominated for Best Foreign Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Music, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Makeup. While I would not be surprised to see it win any (or all) of the above, it is up against a number of worthy contendors. However, it would be positively wrong for another entry to come out on top in the latter two categories. Del Toro’s fantastical creatures have an amazingly palpable screen presence, rivaling anything from the WETA or Jim Henson creature workshops. Although Del Toro’s vision lacks their menagerie-like variety and enormous cast of hundreds, its high quality more than compensates for the low quantity. The denizens of the labyrinth live, breathe and move flawlessly and believably, every bit as alive and real as the human characters. One of the them in particular is among the most terrifying things I have ever seen.

This film is suffused with a powerful combination of delightful wonder, harrowing thrills and moving human drama. It emerges from a rich heritage of fairy tale literature without seeming bland or derivative, sure to leave its own unique mark on a tradition that, apparently, is far from extinct.

~ by Jared on January 26, 2007.

3 Responses to “Pan’s Labyrinth”

  1. Jared, I loved reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales but I won’t be seeing this movie. Thanks for warning me!



  2. Oh, yes. Definitely not quite your cup of tea.


  3. I saw Pan’s Labyrinth with my girlfriend last week at Kimball’s, a cool theatre downtown that shows foreign and independent films (it’s also the only theatre in town that sells wine and has seats that smell like pee, but I guess the latter is not a feature they like to advertize). We both loved the film, and I agree with all of your comments. The scene you alluded to with the especially frightening creature was one of the most suspenseful moments I can recall in any film (and incidentally I loved the parallelism between that chase scene and the scene near the end when her poisoned, stumbling stepfather chases her–his movements closely resembling those of the creature. Brilliant). I will certainly buy this movie as soon as it’s released on DVD.


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