INNOCENCE HAS A POWER EVIL CANNOT IMAGINE.
Pan’s Labyrinth got all the attention and won many awards, but director Guillermo del Toro has always been careful to link it to one of his earlier films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001). They are kindred spirits, as both portray effects of the Spanish Civil War, have a kid in the leading role and contain supernatural themes. They are terrific exercises in the fantastical, but Pan’s Labyrinth won more admirers because its emotions are even more heartfelt than those of The Devil’s Backbone. Del Toro is simply one of our finest fairy-tale storytellers.
The saga takes us to Spain in 1944. Five years after the end of the Civil War, Francisco Franco’s troops are still battling pockets of leftist resistance. A young girl called Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is traveling with her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to meet Captain Vidal (Sergi López). He and Carmen had an affair, which resulted in a pregnancy, and the captain now wants her to give birth at his military posting. Carmen has high hopes for the future, insisting on Ofelia calling Vidal “dad” because that will please him. The girl is not easily persuaded and, in her mother’s view, far too interested in fairy tales. As soon as Ofelia arrives, she spots a curious insect that brings her to an ancient labyrinth.
When night falls, the creature returns and turns into a fairy that leads her to a faun (Doug Jones) inside the labyrinth. The faun believes that Ofelia is actually a legendary princess called Moanna who’s trapped in the human world. She agrees to perform three tasks, as the faun wants to make sure that she’s the real deal. In the meantime, Carmen’s health is deteriorating…
Grim depiction of life in Spain
Del Toro balances the two stories cleverly, emphasizing reality just as much as fantasy. This is a grim depiction of life in Spain shortly after Franco’s victory, with Vidal a manifestation of Fascist evil as he kills innocents without raising an eyebrow. The supernatural world that Ofelia encounters at the same time is reminiscent of real life – there is kindness and beauty but also horror, especially in one sequence that will have you at the edge of your seat, as a pale child-eater with eyeballs inserted into his hands awakes from his slumber and starts chasing Ofelia after having completed one of her tasks.
This adult, passionate story about evil and innocence has more than one layer and hits you straight in the heart regardless of how you view the last fifteen minutes that offer a chance for different interpretations. The cast is very good, especially Baquero as the wide-eyed girl and Jones who plays both the faun and the pale man; always in heavy makeup, he’s utterly compelling as the initially intimidating faun whose harsher side is simply a reflection of his belief in the absolute rules of his world.
As for technical details, the movie looks stunning. Admittedly, CGI ages fast, which is obvious in a few scenes (especially the one with the giant toad), but there is such creativity here on display when it comes to visual effects and makeup that it’s a marvel to behold. All of it is beautifully shot by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro who gave The Devil’s Backbone a lot of its mysterious character as well.
“I have had the great honor to sit next to Stephen King during the Pale Man sequence and to see him squirm like crazy.” That’s what del Toro told MTV in 2006, obviously in awe of the horror writer. After watching Pan’s Labyrinth, I’m sure del Toro could give some of King’s stories an emotional (and fantastical) dimension that perhaps not even the writer is capable of.
Pan’s Labyrinth 2006-Spain-Mexico. 119 min. Color. Produced by Alfonso Cuarón, Álvaro Augustín, Bertha Navarro, Guillermo del Toro, Frida Torresblanco. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro. Music: Javier Navarrete. Art Direction: Eugenio Caballero, Pilar Revuelta. Costume Design: Lala Huete. Makeup: David Marti, Montse Ribé. Cast: Sergi López (Vidal), Maribel Verdú (Mercedes), Ivana Baquero (Ofelia), Álex Angulo, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil.
Trivia: Original title: El laberinto del fauno.
Oscars: Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Makeup. BAFTA: Best Foreign Language Film, Costume Design, Makeup & Hair.
Last word: ‘I was also trying to uncover a common thread between the ‘real world’ and the ‘imaginary world’ through one of the seminal concerns of fairy tales: choice. It’s something that has intrigued me since ‘Cronos’, through ‘Hellboy’ and now to ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’: the way your choices define you. And I thought it would be great to counterpoint an institutional lack of choice, which is fascism, with the chance to choose, which the girl takes in this movie.” (Del Toro, The Guardian)