Film Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 28, 2007 — 4 Comments

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.


Ivana Baquero as Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth

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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Philocrites

    I went to see “Pan’s Labyrinth” in part because you had flagged it as perhaps the most thoroughly pagan mainstream film to come down the pike. I was also impressed by the extremely favorable reviews in the Times, the New Yorker, and other periodicals.I’ll confess two things: I was wholly unprepared for the brutality in the film, and my wife and I got up and left the theater during one of the torture scenes. I returned alone to watch the rest of the film, only because I felt obliged to see how things turned out. (Before she left, my wife predicted every character’s fate, with one exception: She didn’t predict the torture that would befall one of the main characters.) I had seen “Chronos,” so I had some idea how macabre del Toro’s variety of fantasy could be, but viewers should know in advance that some of the violence is extremely graphic and disturbing.I was also unsure whether the film would strike you as pagan simply because del Toro identified a certain amount of paganism in his own view, or because the film invoked pagan images and themes, or because the film’s narrative somehow illumines or expresses a pagan view of life. I found it fatalistic and disturbing, but I can’t tell if I’m responding to the cinematic vision, the religious vision, or the narrative vision of the film.It was, however, extremely well made, extremely powerful, and profoundly unsettling.

  • Jason

    “I found it fatalistic and disturbing, but I can’t tell if I’mresponding to the cinematic vision, the religious vision, or thenarrative vision of the film.”I don’t see the vision of the film as fatalistic (but I can certainlysee how you might find it disturbing). Ofelia’s fate (from both the “fantasy” and “realistic” perspective) is due to her own choices (a point driven home by the faun at the end of the picture). In fact I would say the fatalistic view is repudiated by the portrayal of Captain Vidal who sees no choices, only commands to be obeyed.”Pan’s Labyrinth” isn’t a Pagan theological statement. That said, I do feel there are some important truths about a Pagan (or at leastpre-Christian) world-view hidden within the film. There are a lot ofrich themes Del Toro draws upon for this film, and compared to most fantasy films Pan’s Labyrinth is much more “Pagan” in tone than most.

  • Cosette

    Captain Vidal is wholly believable. Anyone with first hand experience of Communists, Fascists, and other terrorists can attest to that. The film is brutal, but I don’t think it would have worked as well without the violence. Unlike so many horror and action films, the violence was neither gratuitous nor titillating, but serves to create a world we can truly be afraid of. I loved the film and reviewed it on my blog as well.

  • deo

    You’re right about the violence – whoah momma was it graphic. But I can’t decide if it was used for its gross-out factor (like in the scene where the captain is stitching up his face), or if it had another purpose. This kind of violence seemed particularly unsettling when contrasted against the fairy tale premise, the little girl and her magic book, etc… For my part, when I left the theater I was in a strange state – a very uncomfortable mood. I didn’t know what I was feeling or how to describe it (even now). But perhaps this is just because that movie showed me something I’ve never seen before. It launched me into a wholly novel emotional landscape, and if there is a “function” of art at all, surely that is part of it. So in that regard, bravo!Also, as for the movie being, in some sense, “Pagan”, this combination of magic and the brutality and suffering of life is quite apt. It is one of the strengths, I think, of the Pagan worldview, that life isn’t *supposed* to be all shiny and light. It’s complicated, it’s painful, but its also magical, and there’s redemption to be had for the honorable. If that’s not a Pagan moral, I don’t know what is…Cheers,deò