Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
“Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot Imagine.”
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi Lopez
Synopsis: In the falangist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.
WARNING! – This review contains SPOILERS!
The year is 1944, and rebels are still waging war on Franco’s forces from Spain’s mountainous forests in the forlorn hope that the war will somehow impact on the dictator’s grip on the country. An army officer, Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is despatched to a remote region to wipe out a particularly troublesome band, and sends for his heavily pregnant wife and step-daughter to join him. The stepdaughter, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), is reluctant. Her stepfather is a cold, remote man, troubled by complex psychological scars that can be traced back to his own father. He takes a sadistic pleasure in torturing and killing those rebels unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Vidal is the kind of cold-hearted villain that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond movie, but director Guillermo del Toro invests his characters with a lot more depth than most, and in Vidal he creates a complicated monster, one who is haunted by a past that is only hinted at, and who is so desperate for a son to continue his family line that he’s willing to sacrifice the mother to save the unborn child. We don’t need telling what kind of father Vidal would be or what his plans for his son are — del Toro leaves us in no doubt simply by showing the coldness at the man’s core.
Ofelia also instinctively knows what kind of father Vidal would be, and her defence is to retreat into a fantasy world that is probably just that — a defensive creation of her imagination. I say probably because del Toro is too canny a writer and director to leave things so cut and dried. The way he films transitory shots between the fantasy world and the real suggests that the real co-exists with the fantasy without knowledge of its existence. In this fantasy world abides a giant faun whose motivation is deliberately ambiguous. At times it seems as if he is trying to lead Ofelia into a trap, but in fact he is simply providing her with choices and leaving it up to her to decide how to act. The fawn tells her that she may — or may not — be the spirit of a princess who long ago left the fantasy world and lost all memory of its existence, and in order for her to prove she is not a mere human she is given three tasks to perform.
But Pan’s Labyrinth is more sophisticated than a simple story about a fantastical quest, and Ofelia’s dark adventures in this fantasy underworld never overwhelms the equally dark story that is unfolding in the real world. Her only friend in the makeshift garrison, which is stationed in an old mill next to an ancient labyrinth, is Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), a servant who is also working with the rebels, who are led by her brother. Ofelia soon discovers Mercedes’ duplicity, but chooses not to disclose this information to her stepfather. And as Ofelia draws closer to completing her three tasks, the conflict between the militia and the rebels grows increasingly bloody.
Pan’s Labyrinth has all the trappings of a children’s fantasy, but its mature themes and graphic violence places it firmly in adult territory. The Pale Man (Doug Jones), one of the creatures Ofelia encounters in the underworld, is particularly disturbing; almost fishlike in appearance, he has hanging folds of loose pink flesh and detachable eyes which he places into holes in his hands when awoken. And a scene in which a character performs do-it-yourself surgery on a gaping wound will have even the hardiest of adults squirming in their seats.
The multi-layered complexity of del Toro’s story is enough to tax most adult minds, and the dark look of the film proves relentlessly grim as all the characters struggle against an unpalatable future they seem powerless to avert. The bittersweet ending does little to reassure, leaving us instead to contemplate a land of darkness from which the only hope of escape is locked away in the fanciful notions of a dying child.
Despite the presence of nightmarish monsters, the graphic violence and the downbeat tone, it’s the character of Vidal, superbly played by Sergi Lopez, that remains longest in the memory. Creating fantastic monsters like the Pale Man is easy to do, but to convincingly create a fully-rounded human monster like Vidal requires a level of skill that few possess.