The films of Guillermo del Toro have often dealt with innocence in a corrupt world; sometimes the innocence is found in surprising places, as in Hellboy, in which a demon becomes a savior. He also plays with the idea of redemption through transformation in such a way that the concept becomes almost Wagnerian in scope. And in Pan’s Labyrinth, he hinges these ultimately profound themes on a child’s belief in fairy tales.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl addicted to fairy tales, arrives at an old mill in the mountains of northern Spain. It is 1944, as Franco tightens his grip on the country in the wake of the Civil War and World War II begins its final nightmare. Ofelia is traveling with her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to take up residence with Captain Vidal (Sergi López), Ofelia’s new stepfather, who leads a detachment tasked with eliminating the band of Republican resistance fighters who have taken refuge in the surrounding area. Adjacent to the mill is an ancient labyrinth which proves irresistibly fascinating to Ofelia, who is, in spite of her other virtues, one of those headstrong children who will follow her own way. She discovers a stairway at the center of the maze that leads down to a strange, cavernous room, where she meets a faun (Doug Jones) who tells her that she is the princess of an underground kingdom who long ago ran away, and whose father has waited for her return. She must complete three tasks to prove herself, and then she may return to her kingdom.
The surface story, the “real world” story, is focused on the increasing tension at the mill, where Carmen, who is near term with the Captain’s child, is very ill. Ofelia is cared for mostly by the housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), whose brother is the leader of the resistance, which has numerous supporters among the staff, including Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo), who in addition to his other duties has been providing medical care to the insurgents on the sly. The story builds to a suitably spectacular, and in most respects, thoroughly satisfactory conclusion.
The magic of this film — and, although I found it deeply disturbing, there is no small measure of magic in it — is hard to pin down. There is really nothing groundbreaking about it in style or content, but the experience is seamless and in a certain measure otherworldly. Part of it is, I think, the way del Toro has managed the very straightforward interweaving of different realities, moving directly from Ofelia’s fairy tale world into the equally cryptic and difficult objective world. The “real world” is in many respects even more grotesque than Ofelia’s fairy tale. Carmen is seriously ill, the Captain is given to bouts of casual murder and doesn’t seem to care for anyone much, and the soldiers are not the sort who will loosen up to entertain a child, while the guerrillas in the hills have no room in their agenda for compassion toward an enemy. The one human place for Ofelia, as her mother sinks further into illness, is with Mercedes, who offers sympathy and even a little understanding, but who also has her own terrors.
One reason, I think, that the movie is so fascinating is that there are no obvious parallels between Ofelia’s fantasy world and the real world around her. After desperately trying to find those nonexistent links, it occurred to me that they don’t really need to be there. Part of the subtext in the film recalls the role of fairy tales in the life of children, and reminds us of the fact that children are often able to deal with horror quite effectively in ways that we, as adults, have forgotten.
Another reason for the fascination, and the one that elicited the strongest response in me, is that this is a film of images, in the broadest possible sense. Aside from the low-key but often arresting cinematography by Guillermo Navarro and the almost transparent score by Javier Navarrete, I was struck by two things. First, the very beautiful, strong, eloquent faces, especially those of the women. There is a tendency in “art films” to rely on Pinteresque silences, whether they have the substance of Pinter or not, carried by the subtle play of expression on the faces of the actors. (Monica Vitti’s performance in Antonioni’s La Notte took this about as far as it could go; Maria Callas in Pasolini’s Medea was perhaps pushing it a bit.) Although Baquero seems to lose her focus in a couple of scenes, she turns in a remarkable performance by this standard, while Verdú is simply beyond compare. López’ is one of the most chilling performances I’ve seen, marked by a subtlety and polish that are awe inspiring, all played through an almost, but not quite, complete lack of expression that reveals the man’s emotional poverty.
Perhaps because I am not a Spanish speaker, except for a few words and phrases picked up in daily life, the dialogue became another image, a sort of ad hoc soundtrack. There was no point in listening for meaning, with the effect that it became part of the music in a way, adding a dimension to character that I might well have missed had I understood what people were saying.
Given the surface story, the ongoing conflict between Fascists and Republicans in Spain, it would be naïve to assume there is no political subtext to this film, particularly for a contemporary American. What is remarkable is the way in which del Toro punches through the temptation to parody the extremes and instead uses the Captain to portray, quietly and effectively, a living portrait of the soullessness of any kind of authoritarianism. And perhaps there is my link: Ofelia’s fairy tales are the only freedom she can find.
I said the film was disturbing, and it is, on several levels. There is a good measure of graphic violence, although certainly not up to slasher film standards, but the sheer gratuitousness, not in terms of the film itself but in terms of the people and lives it is portraying, is deeply unsettling. I’m also usually rooting for a standard-issue fairy-tale happy ending, so that the necessarily transcendent resolution of this one, even though predictable and even inevitable, left me a little depressed. In retrospect, however, except for a couple of glaring believability gaps, I have no quarrel with del Toro’s methods or their result.
What to say? Pan’s Labyrinth (which, by the way, del Toro insists is a mistranslation; the faun is not intended to be Pan) is, indubitably, filled with poetry that is somehow both rich and bleak, concrete and ethereal. I don’t know if I want to see it again, which in itself is revealing: my enthusiasm is tempered by the realization that viewing this film is being put through an emotional wringer.
(Picturehouse Entertainment [U.S. distributor], 2006)