*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Before watching this dark and sometimes violent adult fairy tale, I was
expecting something alike to Jean Pierre Jeunet's City of Lost
Children. While I do prefer City of Lost Children, Pan's Labyrinth is
an excellent film, well deserving of the accolades and attention that
it has been spurring in every film festival since its release.
It begins when a heavily pregnant Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her imaginative, book absorbed daughter, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), arrive in the Spanish countryside during the post-civil war period of 1944. Here, Ofelia meets with her step father, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who leads a merciless battle against anti-fascist resistors hidden in the surrounding woods.
It turns out that the forest is replete with guerrillas, one of which, Pedro, is enamoured with the housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). Mercedes collaborates closely with the humanistic Dr Ferreiro who has been assigned to Carmen's bed while secretly lending his services to the resistance. Ofelia learns of their alliance on the first night and through her mature silence, we learn of Ofelia's nature. She quickly establishes herself, not as a scatterbrain whose mind is filled with the senselessness of fairy tales but as a well-meaning, caring daughter, concerned for her mother's well-being and for the safety of her new friend, Mercedes. Ofelia so recalls Miette in her determination to better the bleak reality that surrounds her that I refuse to admit that she used her created world merely as an escape. Ofelia does not retreat into Pan's Labyrinth because she is weak and ill-equipped for the real world, since the world of her dreams is after all, equally dark, but because it is in her world that she can find the strength to remedy the problems that surround her. It is in her world that she can create solutions for the troubles that haunt her. And so while it is true that the oppressive forces of the dangerous reality, the loss of her beloved father - so unlike the sadistic Captain Vidal - and the gloomy prospect that her mother's delicate pregnancy presents, all impel her to escape into a fairy world, it is her courage and longing for betterment that drives her. Her world remains psychologically tainted by the dark reality and it is here, in that dreamscape, that Guillermo del Toro's genius fascinates, through the wonderful surrealistic landscape that he paints.
Ofelia descends into the labyrinthine structure nearby and meets the limp haired, sharp eyed faun. This most eloquent, yet ever dubious Faun declares Ofelia to be the reincarnation of Princess Moanna and offers her the chance to reopen the portal that will lead to her heavenly kingdom. He presents Ofelia with three tasks through which she must prove herself before she can be reinstated as Princess Moanna. While struggling through those tasks, Ofelia must not only grapple with her own and our suspicions of the Faun's intentions but must also combat with herself. As with all moralistic fairy tales, each test seems designed to ascertain Ofelia's character and test her resolve.
The first horrendous task seems to call on this city girl to prove her will in this marshy, insect infested countryside! The second task which sees her enter the dining chamber of a sleeping, prawn-like figure calls on her to avoid the lush temptations of the banquet table. In terms of its nightmarish quality and Freudian relevance, this sequence is a standout. There are walls stained with blood, bone-like columns in an empty hallway, even the dining room walls are ornate with demonic depictions of infanticides while the banquet, with its rich reds and burgundies, evokes yet more blood. Most chilling is the cannibalistic prawn creature equipped with hand eye-sockets who extends his palms out to spy and catch potential prey, all the while stumbling after a running Ofelia. But it is in the third task that Ofelia proves herself most and where dream meets reality in a heart breaking, yet uplifting, conclusion.
The Pan's Labyrinth characters as in every dark fairy tale are striking figures of good and evil, of weakness and strength. None are more convincing than the cruel, cold Captain Vidal. He is the epitome of self-interested chauvinism and narcissism. While he proudly flashes his wedding band, he considers Carmen as a mere vessel for his son and shows nothing but callousness towards Ofelia. It is a man who prefers to publicly humiliate his wife's romantic nature, rather than admit to weak sentiments that would render him otherwise than the brutal, energetic role that he so enjoys assuming. It is a man obsessed with time, punctuality and order. On the first night, we watch him viciously murder innocent peasants and soon after, lay the blame for their mistaken identity on his soldiers. Vidal is a vain, self-dramatising man who accompanies his morning rituals, his routine shave in front of the mirror, to the sound of glorifying record music.
Interestingly, Vidal's passion for the ticking mechanism of his watch and the film's repeated focus on this old-fashioned contraption, are reminiscent of another one of del Toro's characters: the self-winding knife-wielding warrior in Hellboy. It is of no coincidence that the antagonists in both of these films, the first as Dr Ferreiro so piercingly points out, functioning blindly as an arm of the fascist regime and the second, functioning as a tool for the underworld, should both be symbolically governed by time. One could say that del Toro likens evil to heartless, mechanised order. By contrast, through Ofelia, goodness and purity of heart is associated with imagination, innocence and the pursuit of a dream against all odds.
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