Release Date: October 11th, 2006 (Spain); November 24th, 2006 (UK); January 19th, 2007 (US)
Genre: Drama; Fantasy; War
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú
From the all-encompassing mind of Guillermo del Toro comes Pan’s Labyrinth: a tale about imagination and innocence; a fable comparing the evil we do know against the good that we do not; a story about a young girl whose reality is not quite in sync with those around her. Del Toro’s filmmaking abilities are completely transparent here as he creates a fantasy world that is utterly encapsulating. Not only is the narrative a success, so too is the technical prowess displayed throughout. In one word, Pan’s Labyrinth is not far from timeless.
In 1944 following the Spanish Civil War, Spain is crippled by fascism. Ofelia, a young girl influenced by fantasy stories and fairy tales, travels with her pregnant mother to a fascist command centre in rural Spain. The leader of the centre is Captain Vidal, an authoritative fiend who is also the father of the mother’s unborn child, and whose brutality juxtaposes Ofelia’s virtuous curiosity. It is clear from the beginning that Ofelia’s imagination is the driving force behind her energy and exuberance — as soon as she sees an unusual creature her precious books (and her hat) hit the ground as she heads off in pursuit. This early scene in essence epitomises the film, conveying Ofelia’s disconnect with the real world in favour of her intrigue towards one that is only found in fairy tales.
Ivana Baquero stars as the aforementioned Ofelia, and is outstanding as the young, wide-eyed dreamer. Much of the success of the film rests on her shoulders — she must pivot between the harsh, murky reality where her mother is ill, and the wondrous, mysterious realm presented to her by a faun she meets. “Is that you?” the faun exclaims emphatically, as though it has been waiting an eternity to ask. Ofelia learns from the mythical creature that she is in fact a princess separated from her kingdom. This first interaction between Ofelia and the faun is a telling one, as the girl appears more at home now than at any other previous point in the film. Her reality is fantasy. Unlike anybody else placed in the same situation, Ofelia does not get startled when she meets a creature not-of-this-earth, and instead introduces herself as calmly and invitingly as she would a family member: “My name is Ofelia. Who are you?” the girl wonders gently.
The warring backdrop is far from Ofelia’s mind throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, as it appears Del Toro is highlighting the separation of good and evil. This separation is at its most prevalent by way of the glaring comparison between the monstrous Captain Vidal — who represents tyranny and abnormality — and the faun — whose description of himself as “the mountain, the woods and the earth” is more natural and pure than anything Vidal represents. The film’s ‘good versus evil’ branch also plays in tune with Del Toro’s more violent approach to a story which would normally be directed towards a young audience. Blood, guts and broken bones all see the light of day here and given the prominent fairy tale aspect of the narrative, the enterprising inclusion of such elements is surprising (recalling leg-hacking in Shrek or head-munching in Cinderella is proving a tad difficult). The presence of such a degree of violence is completely warranted however, as it represents the harsh, unwanted situation that Ofelia’s real life presents her with, a real life that in itself does not capture the youngster’s interest.
Sergi López is utterly menacing as Captain Vidal, who is the epitome of vulgarity. López’s presence is overarching in every scene, be that whether he is towering over the relentlessly inquisitive Ofelia, or ordering around his housekeeper Mercedes, with as little compassion as he can muster. Mercedes, played by Maribel Verdú, acts as a beacon of hope in amongst the madness, as she works for the captain against her beliefs in order to spy for a group of rebels situated in the surrounding forests. Verdú successfully juggles sadness with fierce determination, creating a character who the audience roots for alongside Ofelia. Numerous mythical beings and some genuinely creepy monsters (one in particular renders stealing buffet food a no-go zone) are expertly displayed on-screen in awesome detail, both visually and audibly.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has created a film that is wonderful to look at and tremendous to listen to. Del Toro delivers a multitude of characters and creatures, some to love, others to despise and a few to cower away from. Most significantly however, the Mexican director tells a story that is not overawed by style, and one which looks set to keep on championing imagination for decades to come.