Pan's Labyrinth (originally titled El Laborinto del Fauno) is as dark hearted a fairy tale as you will see all year, a tale mired in the final days of the resistance following the Spanish Civil War. As the fascist Falangists, victors over the left wing Republicans, try to bring order to rural Spain, a young girl is enticed by a figure from the primal woods, called to a world that matches the magic of the fairy tales she reads in her books. Is this just her imagination offering her an escape from the harsh realities of her new world, or is it as really real? After the brash Hollywood tales of Blade II and Hellboy, director and writer Guillermero del Toro returns to a time and mood first seen in The Devil's Backbone.
The film opens with the young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travelling with her pregnant mother to join her stepfather in the countryside. He is Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), assigned to stamp out the remnants of the Republican resistance, hiding in the woods nearby.
Obsessed with seeing his son born (and willing to accept the presence of the young girl into his household for that reason) as much as with wiping out all traces of the Left, Vidal is a harsh, brutal man, prepared to use casual violence and practiced torture to ensure that order is imposed from Madrid. Yet the sympathies of his servants lie not with the new order, but with the guerrillas operating in the woods, primarily his housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), and his doctor, Ferreiro (Alex Angulo), employed to ensure that his son is born.
Also in the woods lies the labyrinth of the title, a ruin that Ofelia enters following what we see at first as a flying insect and then as a fairy.
Exploring later, she encounters the faun Pan (Doug Jones) who welcomes her with a revelation: that she possesses the soul of a princess and that only by passing three tests by full moon, will she prove that the soul is rightfully hers. These tests require Ofelia to face a gigantic toad, steal into the lair of the Pale Man (Doug Jones again), and finally spill the blood of an innocent. Each of these tests is disturbing in their own way. To face the toad, Ofelia throws herself into mud of the earth beneath a giant tree; the Pale Man is a nightmarish figure with eyes in the palms of his hands; and the requirement for innocent blood will only be satisfied in true fairy tale fashion.
Yet even as Ofelia faces the horrors within, her stepfather is inflicting them on the inhabitants nearby and on those guerrillas he is able to capture. These include some particularly gory scenes of torture, including one in which Vidal, whose mouth has been sliced open with a knife, takes a drink and sees the alcohol seep back through the wound and soak the gauze.
Fortunately, these scenes of torture are horrific through implication and Vidal's cold minded preparation, realised by the mesmerizing performance of Sergi Lopez. His fascist bastard is undoubtedly a monster, but he is a very human one in his drive to both carry out his orders and ensure that he can pass on his name to his son. Lopez's performance is matched by the rest of the cast.
Ivana Baquero is naturally assured as Ofelia, essentially playing the role of Alice in a nightmarish wonderland. Plaudits though, should go to Doug Jones, whose performance is given in Spanish despite him not speaking a word of the language. His Pan is an oddly creaking creature, beguiling, questioning, but whose words are not wholly trustworthy, whilst his Pale Man is the most disturbing thing seen on screen in quite a while.
Ultimately though, this is a fairy tale in the grimmest of traditions, and there can be no happy ending, not in the Disney-esque sense. Yet Pan's Labyrinth does not end on a down note nor is unsatisfying, but neither is it an easy film to fathom. Its most obvious theme is the classic imagination versus conformity, but where other films might dwell on this, Pan's Labyrinth keeps it in the background.
Similarly, the theme of the modern (and the clean) versus the old (and unclean) are treated in the same fashion. What the film really explores is Ofelia's conscience and the choices she must make, both in the real world and in the labyrinth. This emphasis upon both worlds, which in parts are equally horrifying, makes the film a cohesive whole, and all the more satisfying for it.
Pan's Labyrinth is not an easy film, being brutal, horrifying, monstrous, but also fantastic, beautiful, and thought provoking. This is the best fairy tale committed to celluloid for years and the most satisfying since Spirited Away. In a year of tedious sequels and pointless remakes this the best genre film of the year and the best film of the year. Pan's Labyrinth is simply magical, a dark rich feast for the eyes and the mind.
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