The perfect blend of fantasy and reality.
Now here’s one you’re not going to be expecting. Here is a spanish-language fantasy film that blends elements of reality and war drama with that of horror and psychological thrillers. It’s rated R with a healthy amount of blood, violence, and language, it has a child as its lead character, and it is a fantasy film with no cuddly creatures and no misplaced sense of optimism. It’s also in spanish, one of my most frustrating languages. And it is also probably one of the best films of its kind. Maybe the only one of its kind.
Written and directed by spanish filmmaker Guillmo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is a post-Spanish civil war story about a young girl named Ofelia (brilliantly portrayed by Ivana Bacquero), who is fascinated and enticed by the many stories and fables she finds in her books and novellas. Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is pregnant with her unborn brother, and they have been ordered to move to an outpost located on the outskirts of Mexico so the boy can be born next to his father: Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a cruel and heartless product of war that knows nothing of decency, morality, kindness, or human life. This is a man who would kill a father and his son thinking that they lied about being hunters, and a second later pulls out their quarry in the bottom of their knapsack.
This is the situation Ofelia is trapped in: the cruelty and strictness of Captain Vidal, and the negligence and weakness of her pregnant mother. In the stories that she reads, however, Ofelia finds escape: she soon discovers a cave hidden deep within the gardens of the outpost, unnoticed to the human eye. It is here deep within the cave where she finds odd inscriptions, a plethora of fairies, and even an anonymous Faun (Portrayd by Doug Jones, voiced by Pablo Adan), who informs her of her true destiny: that she is the lost princess Moanna of their sacred kingdom, and she must complete three specific assignments tasked by the Faun in order to become a princess once again.
This is the kind of story Pan’s Labyrinth is: the kind that deftly blends elements of wondrous fantasy with that of tragic reality. This is rare treasure for foreign-language cinema: a film that while it is visually expressive, it is also a deep and personal commentary on the tragedies of war and its effects on a torn country. Del Toro has elaborated on such subjects before: his 2001 film The Devils Backbone also took place during the Spanish Civil war, and it also featured a child in great distress. Here though, I feel that he has a better handling of his premise, and if it is not better, it is at least more creative and dynamic in approach.
The visuals reach out in stellar, gritty, and striking details, the fairies light and whimsical, the faun towering, ancient, and brutish. There are so many visually stunning scenes in this movie, at times it is overwhelming. Del Toro, with the help of his cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, do something rare here: they paint a world here as fascinating as it is dangerous, a mesmerizing and gripping world that hypnotizes you with its appeal and its imagination. One might say Pan’s Labyrinth is an adult version of Alice In Wonderland: I disagree with that. I think this is the realistic version of Alice In Wonderland.
Why do I say this? It might be because the movie is very deserving in its R rating. Besides the occasional F-word uttered in spanish, there is a great deal of gore and violence in the movie, some of it aimed towards children. I’ll be the first to admit, Pan’s Labyrinth is heavy on violence. People are shot frequently in the film, often in very bloody manners. People’s limbs get cut off. In once scene, a man smashes a farm boy’s nose in with the butt of an alcohol bottle. And in one terrifying scene, Ofelia is fleeing capture from a pale man-eating monster, who proves his monstrosity by biting the heads off of the fairies assisting her. Don’t take your kids to this, folks: the movie is extremely violent.
While I would normally take points of a film for using excessive violence, here I believe it is warranted. Through every gunshot, through every murder, and through every droplet of blood, Del Toro is saying something provocative about war and innocence, most of it being things we need to hear of. I don’t believe Pan’s Labyrinth is just memorable, stunning, and poignant entainment: I believe it is relevant storytelling.
And at last, we come to the films conclusion, which is so mesmerizing and emotionally overpowering that we don’t know what to make of it. Did Ofelia complete all of her tasks? Was the Faun telling the truth? Did she become the fabled princess? Was it all a ruse? Or did she simply become a victim of the earthly world from which she was born of? The ending is eloquent, vast, and beautiful, open for many possible interpretations. You decide which one fits you best once you see the movie.