Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the director’s best work, sees a young girl escape her oppressive real world by entering a mythical labyrinth with the guidance of a mysterious faun.
There’s a simple, innocent beauty amidst Guillermo del Toro’s harrowing tale of one girl’s desperation to escape during the bloody Spanish Civil War. Set just after the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944, Pan’s Labyrinth sees a pregnant mother and daughter travelling to see the unborn child’s father – a Captain in the oppressive Spanish army – who is based at an outpost to stop advancing revolutionaries. The daughter – Ofelia (Ivana Baguero) – knows that the man who has fathered her half-brother is not interested in either her or her mother. She feels at once betrayed by her mother for bringing her to this awful place and yet their love is unbreakable, and at the same time she is fearful and distrusting of Captain Vidal. She is given the chance to escape this terrible world when visited by a Faun who tells her she is a Princess from another world. She can return to her kingdom if she completes three magical tasks.
Guillermo del Toro, who writes, producers and directs the movie, completes his fantasy trilogy that started with Cronos and continued through The Devil’s Backbone. Each film is different in its own way but they all draw on the same themes. Pan’s Labyrinth is the antidote for oppression. Drawing on religious overtones, namely life following death, and fairy tale allegories, del Toro flirts with the idea of childhood innocence and imagination. We never really know if Ofelia’s adventures are an actuality or a fantasy but that doesn’t matter. Ofelia believes in her adventures and that makes them real. Her release may be her imagination or it may be the promise of a better life but the fact it allows her to escape, if just for a few moments or hours, is the simple and wholesome beauty of del Toro’s film.
Indeed, del Toro paints a quite horrific backdrop to Ofelia’s adventures. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) has little care for either Ofelia or her mother, he’s only interested in his unborn son who can continue his name. The civil war that is ensuing all around Ofelia is a mere portrait in the background of her own struggles – her crippled mother appears to be dying in pregnancy, and their safe haven is more entrapment than home. Del Toro also hints that Ofelia’s real father may have died at the hand of Vidal, and there’s the sense that Vidal’s consummation of his relationship with the mother of his child may not have been entirely consensual.
There’s a lot to be said for the imagination – especially a child’s imagination. Del Toro utilises child characters often in his films because, like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, they still believe in the make-believe. When Ofelia tells Mercedes – the maid and cook who is secretly helping the resistance – that she saw a fairy, Mercedes explains that she doesn’t believe in them anymore but that she used to as a child. Del Toro uses Ofelia’s fantastic journey into a world beyond our own as an escape mechanism, a distant light breaking through the over-powering dark. It is also symbolic of life and death in that, amidst the civil war and bloody battles surrounding this little girl, there is goodness and joy if you know where to look. Del Toro isn’t telling us that death is our outlet, quite the contrary, he’s denouncing mankind’s own evils and telling us to embrace life.
The film benefits from del Toro’s brilliant eye for detail. His camera lens is always richly filled and he frequently devises intelligent and innovative ways to tell his story visually. There’s that great shot looking through the keyhole in The Devil’s Backbone (one of those perfectly composed jump-out-of-your-seat moments) and in Pan’s Labyrinth we see Ofelia’s fantasy world have an intense vibrancy with its warm colours and attention to detail. There’s some lovely shots on show: Ofelia peering with bottomless innocence at a fairy fluttering before her very eyes; when she walks up to the labyrinth, like Alice entering Wonderland, the blues and greys of the stonework lit by the shining moon; and the kneeling girl looking into the Other world she’s just discovered through a door she drew with chalk on the wall.
Del Toro’s visual style harks back to some of the childhood fantasies that came out of Hollywood in the 1980s – the sense of adventure seen in Richard Donner’s The Goonies, the colourful yet dark characters of the David Bowie-fronted Labyrinth, the imagination of Joe Dante’s Explorers. There’s so much to admire from a director who not only paints his films with such rich visual detail but also provides us with a great story and wonderful characters to support it.
His mystical entities – the toad with a key in its belly, the obscure-looking albino with eyes in its hands – are one thing, but Ofelia and Vidal ground the film in an all-too cold authenticity. Ofelia is the consequence of the evils that surround her, Vidal is the cause of such evils. Ivana Baguero who plays Ofelia is a superb, young actress from Spain who gives the character a fragility tempered by wistful imagination. However, the stand out performance is delivered by Sergi Lopez as Vidal. Certainly one of the most frightening individuals since Kubrick had the Drill Sergeant breaking soldiers in Full Metal Jacket or Scorsese reintroduced Cape Fear to us with Robert De Niro, Lopez is all cocked-head cockiness and callous judge and jury. His violent, angry murder of a man wrongly accused of plotting against him is made more frightening, not by del Toro’s graphic depiction of the act, but Lopez’s emotionless, straight-faced punishment that reveals not a shred of remorse. Lopez’s commanding performance and vacant sentiment is the perfect counterpoint to Baguero’s childhood fragility and wish fulfilment.
Pan’s Labyrinth should be talked about for a long time to come. It’s a brilliant presentation of style and substance, of richly coloured imagination and authentic backdrop. Del Toro has never been better, in either Hollywood or Spain, and he’ll have to delve deeply into his darkest fears and the corners of his subconscious to find something to top this.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo
Released: 2006 / Genre: Comedy / Country: Mexico/Spain / IMDB