Directed by Guillermo del Toro. 2006.

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Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth has been called a fairy tale, but it is one without the color, warmth, or wonder we normally associate with films of this type. Rather, it owes more to the Latin genre of magic realism, as it reflects the grim fantasies of a young child caught in the middle of a brutal conflict and her desperate longing for a world without pain. Set in Spain after Franco had emerged victorious in the Spanish Civil War, Nationalist troops and die hard resistance fighters continue the struggle in the Spanish countryside. As the film opens, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter Ofelia, brilliantly performed by Ivana Baquero, are traveling to join Carmen’s new husband, Falangist Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez) in his military headquarters.  

Ofelia, a bright, imaginative girl of ten, carries with her books of fairy tales. Her father, a tailor, died a few years ago in the war, and her mother is pregnant with the baby the Captain believes will be his son. When they stop to rest, the little girl meets a buzzing dragonfly and believes it to be a fairy welcoming her to a magic realm. In a voice-over, we hear the story of an underground country where “there are no lies and no pain”, a metaphor perhaps for the thousands of Franco resisters who were forced to go underground. In this country, a young princess named Moanna is mourned after she leaves the realm to explore life on Earth and is blinded by the sun and dies. Her father, the King of the Underworld, however, has never given up hope that the princess will one day return in another incarnation.  

When Ofelia reaches the mill which has been converted into a military headquarters, she discovers an ancient stone labyrinth near her new home and meets seven-foot tall Pan, a half-man half-goat “faun”, (Doug Jones) who tells her that she is the princess who everyone in his kingdom has longed for. To return to her true home and be reunited with her father, however, she must complete three arduous tasks, revealed to her by touching the blank pages of large notebook. These include encountering a huge toad in the roots of an old fig tree and retrieving a key from his stomach, and searching for a dagger in a room guarded by another gruesome creature, the Pale Man, whose eyeballs are in the palm of his hands. The room is filled with delectable treats but Ofelia is sworn not to eat them.  

The film shifts seamlessly between fantasy sequences and the armed conflict. Vidal is depicted as a soldier who takes pleasure in killing. In one scene, he sadistically beats a peasant to death with a bottle, suspecting him of being a rebel. His cruelty is not limited to rebels, however. When Carmen becomes sick during her difficult pregnancy, the girl hears her stepfather tell the doctor that if it comes to a choice between saving the mother or saving the baby, he wants him to save the baby. Amidst all the darkness, Ofelia develops a warm relationship with the housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), whom she later discovers sneaks out at night to bring messages, food, and medical supplies to the rebels. The Captain is merciless when he discovers Mercedes’ “treason” as well as that of Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo) who refuses to obey Vidal’s orders.  

As the world around her grows darker and her mother becomes sicker, Ofelia further retreats into her dream world. Soon she must make the most difficult choice any person can be asked to make. Pan’s Labyrinth is a strong and heartfelt film but it is a mostly gloomy affair and I yearned for some light and warmth to pervade the darkness, but the film does not go there except for a few brief moments. Del Toro’s work, however, is not about metaphysics or spirituality. It is a personal film about memory and, as both Ofelia and Vidal remember their fathers, del Toro wants the world to remember the sadistic nature of the Franco regime, the courage of those who stood up to its brutality, and the innocence his country lost forever.  


Howard Schumann
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