When a film gains as much critical acclaim as Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth has you go in with high hopes. Was the film worth the hype, or will I leave disappointed? I felt a little nervous, since I have been such a strong supporter of the film on my blog, what if I convinced people to go to a film that was flat and lacking in the magic promised? It turns out I shouldn’t have worried. Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterful film, filled with magic, wonder, and quite a bit of darkness and horror as well.
This film is a fairytale for grown-ups, a phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit whenever a film incorporates elements of magical realism. But in this case, the title is apt, and sets the bar quite high for future films in this genre.
Set in the countryside of fascist Spain shortly before the end of WWII, it concerns a young girl, Ofelia, who is drawn into a magical world where she is given three tasks to perform by a mysterious faun. Ignored by her aloof step-father (a Captain in Franco’s army) and ailing pregnant mother, Ofelia yearns to leave the ever-growing pains and horrors of our world and join the magical world promised by the faun. As Ofelia completes her tasks, her mundane life grows ever more grim and horrific, and we are left to wonder how much of her interactions with the faun and his pet “faeries” are real, or simply a fantasy used by a young girl to deal with the pain and alienation she experiences.
Del Toro, to his credit, never makes explicit if the fantastical elements are “real” or not. Often filmmakers feel the need to reinforce the “reality” of magic in such films by exposing a non-believer (usually the villain) to some sort of supernatural comeuppance. Instead, the director shows that to Ofelia, the faun and her tasks are every bit as real as the tasks taken on by Captain Vidal in his obsessive hunt for anti-fascist rebels or by the servant Mercedes in her quest to aid them. While some may say that the film gives us the option of choosing to believe Ofelia’s version of the story or the “real” world’s, I think Guillermo del Toro is instead saying that both are equally “true” and valid.
To give away more would (in my opinion) give away the film, but I do want to address a criticism I have heard concerning this film. Some have complained of the one-dimensional nature of Captain Vidal, that he is “too evil” to be believable. That the film takes no time to humanize him. But I think his part is important for showing that humans can twist themselves’ beyond redemption, that to deny your humanity (and the humanity of others) for too long twists you into something monstrous. A lesson that the Captain learns far too late to earn him any pity. To treat the character in any other manner would have diluted that lesson and destroyed the fairytale essence of the picture.
Pan’s Labyrinth may be the best “fantasy” film I have ever seen. A movie that reminds us that some of the best fairy-stories are the ones that have scared and shocked us (and that some of the best horror stories take time to delight us along the way). You should go out and see this film while you still have the chance to see it on the big screen. Oh, and one final note, this isn’t for the kids. There are plenty of gruesome scenes here not appropriate for younger viewers. So make this one a date for just you and your significant other.