A brilliant and seamless juxtaposition of dark fantasy with harsh reality, Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) is his best film yet. Beautifully chilling and enchantingly heartbreaking, Guillermo shows us that escapism doesn’t always let you escape and that monsters are more frightening in the real world than through the rabbit hole. And, because it’s a foreign film, not beholden to any lobby, these characters suffer real consequences for their actions (and seem more and more like real people for it).
The film takes place just after the end of the Spanish civil war, in an entrenched forest community of soldiers out to exterminate the last of the rebels who oppose them. These forces are led by a sadistic Capitán Vidal (played by Sergi López), a man as meticulous about his violence as he is about his daily shaving, the kind of man who not only shoots first and asks later, but enjoys doing so more. Into this dark kingdom comes our ray of hope, the innocent young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who accompanies her mother (who is pregnant with the Capitán’s heir). Ofelia is Alice with a back story – she even wears a similar outfit – but the main difference is that Ofelia doesn’t get lost down a rabbit hole: she tries to escape down one.
In the middle of the night, where it is still possible to dismiss the film’s fantasy as the feverish dreams of a helpless girl, Ofelia is visited by a fairy and is led to the center of a nearby labyrinth. It is here that she encounters the suspicious looking faun, Pan, a creature who moves with belabored grace and speaks with gentle poetry, but who bears the savages of time, blinking at her with a dead, milky white eye. According to Pan, Ofelia is actually a princess, trapped in mortal form, and if she can fulfill Pan’s three tasks (each a moral lesson, as fairy tales ought to be), she can reclaim her throne. What’s appealing about Pan’s Labyrinth is that even the purportedly good magical creatures still seem sinister: Pan’s spiral eyebrows and rotten sneer make him seem sinister and Ofelia’s fairy companion begins as a flying nightcrawler that scares her in the middle of the night. Del Toro doesn’t separate the two worlds with different palettes or beautiful people – if anything, the fantasy world is harsher than the real one.
Of course, del Toro doesn’t make the real world appealing either: in the rebel’s camp, we have to watch an un-anesthetized amputation and back in the “safety” of the Capitán’s base, we have to watch Ofelia’s mother bleed out from her turbulent pregnancy. There are good characters, like the maternal housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the pain-relieving Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo). It isn’t hard to imagine their fates in del Toro’s harsh world – a world he started building back in 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone.
Visually, the closest comparison is Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a self-taught French director who brought us the dystopic fantasies of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. But those films were dark comedies, meant to serve as parables and parallels to reality, whereas Guillermo del Toro’s vision wants to show us that fantasy is no different from reality. Compare Ofelia’s sludge through the belly of a slime-covered tree with the trudge of the rebel forces through the mud-encrusted slopes of Spain. In the film, Ofelia uses a magical piece of chalk to draw her way into a child-eating demon’s realm; she must stealthily creep by him in order to retrieve one of the three artifacts she needs. We’ll see the same scene again when Ofelia draws her way into the Capitán’s private quarters, where she must hide from him long enough to save her baby brother and make her escape. Granted, the demon has eyes in the palms of his hands and takes wobbling, uncertain steps, but how different is he from the barbarous Capitán?Pan’s Labyrinth is an easily accessible film, as uncomplicated in plot as they come, and yet it is rich in metaphor and subtext. For all the similarities in harsh tones and hues that it shares with Children of Men, del Toro has made the more beautiful film: a lush and utterly transporting fiction that is impossible to resist. And although the maze may be straightforward, it is a labyrinth you will not want to leave.
[First posted to Film Monthly on 1/7]