Pan’s Labyrinth, El laberinto del fauno, is the second movie I’ve seen by director-writer-producer Guillermo del Toro. His El espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) was an extraordinary allegory on the Spanish Civil War told as a ghost story. Both films are true works of art. Like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but I loved it.
First and foremost, it is a feast for the eyes. The natural settings are beautiful, the sets and special effects are sumptuous, and every period detail is authentic and exactly as it should be. The photography, lighting, design and composition further contribute to a masterpiece. This is what cinematography should be: truly an art. While most of the action takes place in darkness, it is darkness that is clear and beautiful. Indeed, the trailer says, “in darkness there can be light”, and the film delivers. (I could only wish they’d use these artists in the Harry Potter movies.) The score uses a traditional lullaby theme evocative of sorrowful longing and lost love.
Art history majors will have a great time comparing the images with Spanish art, from Goya to Un Chien Andalou. The motifs of ruins of Celtic Spain are integral part of the highly stylized fairy tale setting.
While there are a lot of symbolic elements (a blank book, a broken watch, a mandrake root, and so on) and a plethora of fairy tale imagery, the movie is not bogged down with them, unlike Children of Men. Elements of magical realism, and children caught up in the emergence of a fascist society reminiscent of The Tin Drum are handled deftly and do not obscure this marvelous tale.
Another good thing: the movie is not dubbed, and the actors’ voices are extraordinarily rich and beautiful, with no exception.
While on the surface there appear to be two story lines, there is in the end only one, involving the central character, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a beautiful 11-yr old girl living in 1944 post-Civil War Spain. Olivia’s mother is suffering from life-threatening pregnancy complications as the two of them head to her mother’s new husband’s headquarters. Ofelia’s too old for dolls but holds close to her heart the fairy tales of her childhood as she meets her stepfather, the sadistic Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who might have killed her father or might possibly even be her natural father.
As her mother becomes more ill and the environment gradually reveals itself to its true cruelty, Olivia becomes a princess embarking on three quests. In addition to the fairy tale princess and the monstrous stepfather, there is a heroic woman and a courageous doctor. Mercedes the housekeeper (Maribel Verdu) nearly steals the movie but all the actors rise to the challenge. The movie increasingly develops tension and suspense: you care for these people.
I must emphasize that this is not a film for children because of violence, language, and adult themes. The fairy tale indeed is the way this helpless child can cope with the horror around her, and it’s up to you to decide if it exists or not. Thinking of this movie as exclusively a fairy tale is missing the point.
I know of no other Spanish film that has dealt as graphically with Spain’s descent into 20th Century totalitarianism. The ruins shown during the initial sequence are what remains of the town of Belchite in Zaragoza, which was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War and never rebuilt. As the descendant of Spaniards who swore never to return after the Civil War, the plot packed a big emotional punch for me.
(Update: I’m discussing the propaganda aspect with Spanish bloggers and will post on this at another time)
Peter Paul Martin found Pan’s Labyrinth “primarily a fantasy film with a human story woven into it”, I consider it the reverse: a human story with a fantasy element woven in. It has great emotional depth.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said,
Del Toro never coddles the audience. He means for us to leave Pan’s Labyrinth shaken to our souls. He succeeds triumphantly.
I was completely spellbound by this film and hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterpiece.
Don’t forget to bring Kleenex – you’re going to need it.
PS, my apologies to Paul Martin for the error.