Director: Guillermo del Toro
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The cinephile world has gone wild over Pan’s Labyrinth. The film has earned a phenomenal 99% positive rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s hard to know what more there is to say about it—but I’ll try. While Pan’s Labyrinth is a must-see among cinephiles and has strong support from the fanboy demographic who flocked to see two of Guillermo del Toro’s previous films, Blade 2 and Hellboy, the moviegoing populace at large is going to ignore it in droves because it’s in Spanish and too violent for family viewing. That’s a shame, because this is as fine a bit of storytelling as the best Steven Spielberg narratives. Despite its realistic, graphic violence and buckets of blood, the movie rides a wave of enchantment by weaving its overt fairytale storyline subtly, but powerfully, into its real-world storyline to create a sublime sort of hybrid.
As a sort of follow-up to del Toro’s 2001 feature The Devil’s Backbone, a bleak and chilling ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in a rural area of Spain shortly after Franco’s fascist regime has taken power. Rebels still hope to unseat Franco, so military outposts continue their gruesome job of exterminating the opposition. To one such outpost travel 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who has married the outpost’s leader, Captain Vidal (Sergi López).
As del Toro sets the scene at the beginning of the film, a voiceover narration tells of the princess of the underworld who, out of curiosity and boredom, went up to the physical world and lost all memory of her identity in the rays of the sun. Her father searched for her, and never gave up hope that she would return to his kingdom one day and reclaim her identity and place. Already, del Toro has very simply put us into “tell me a story” mode, piquing our interest and riveting our attention to the tale he intends to unfold. Further, he concentrates our attention on Ofelia, who is shown in close-up reading this fairytale in a book as she rides in the car with her mother. Carmen becomes nauseated, and her driver must stop the car for her. This is an arduous trip, and Carmen is having a difficult pregnancy. She is, however, obeying her new husband, who believes a baby boy should be born near his father. In the captain’s mind, there is no chance the baby will be a girl.
Their late arrival to the outpost annoys the Captain. His greeting to his wife is perfunctory and includes an order for her to sit in a wheelchair for transportation to her new quarters. Ofelia does not like him, but she is far beneath his notice. Looking after her will be Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), the chief housekeeper. It is Mercedes who goes to retrieve Ofelia after she wanders off to explore the grounds and finds an ancient stone maze in the rundown garden.
Carmen meets Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo), who will be attending her during her pregnancy. He seems kind and concerned; Ofelia learns that he is providing medical supplies to the resistance through Mercedes, whose brother is one of its leaders. Mercedes sees Ofelia watch her take the supplies from the doctor and worries about the security of her secret. Ofelia reassures her; her hatred for the Captain guarantees Mercedes’ and Dr. Ferreiro’s safety. We come to hate the Captain, too, when we watch him commit a heinous act of brutality just to teach one of his officers a lesson.
Ofelia looks for an escape from her unhappy world. She finds it when a praying mantis that has followed her car transforms into a fairy and leads her out of the house to the maze. She comes to a circle with a staircase leading deep below ground. When she reaches the bottom, she meets a half-human, half-ram faun (Doug Jones)—perhaps it is Pan himself. He instantly recognizes her as the long-lost princess and convinces her that she must complete three tasks to prove that her essence is still pure and take her rightful place in the underworld kingdom. He hands her a book and tells her to read it and complete the tasks before the next full moon, which is fast approaching.
Ofelia examines the book in private. Its pages are empty, but when the light hits it, words and drawings magically appear. Her first task is to go to the base of a very old tree that is being strangled by a giant toad. There she is to place three rubies in the toad’s mouth, which will kill it and free the tree. She runs out in a beautiful party dress her mother has gotten her to wear to a special dinner party the Captain is having that night to introduce Carmen to his friends. She carefully removes the dress, although she has muddied her party shoes, and crawls inside the tree to confront the toad and complete the task. Enormous beetles writhe all around her, and she is slimed by the toad before conceiving a clever way to complete her task. When she emerges from the tree with a magic key the toad coughed up, her party dress has blown into the mud. Her mother, who has already been shown a cold shoulder by her husband at the dinner party, expresses her disappointment that Ofelia has missed the dinner and ruined her dress.
Soon thereafter, Carmen’s pregnancy takes a bad turn. When Ofelia looks in her magic book for her next task, the pages reveal only a red and spreading stain. She runs to her mother and finds her hemorrhaging badly, in a scene of graphic horror. The Captain tells Dr. Ferreiro that if a choice must be made, to save his son over his wife. Ofelia overhears this conversation. She knows that if her mother dies, she will be utterly expendable.
Ofelia is given her second task. She must use the key to open a safe in a banquet hall and retrieve its contents. The faun admonishes her not to eat from the banquet table under any circumstances and to return to her home before an hourglass he gives her runs out of sand. He gives her a piece of chalk to draw a door to the banquet hall, which is the only way to reach it from her room, and three of his fairies to help her. A creature called Pale Man (also played by Doug Jones) slumbers at the table. She goes past him and retrieves the contents of the safe easily. But she pauses to eat two grapes, rousing Pale Man and sending him in pursuit of her. He eats two of the fairies, but Ofelia manages to escape. She hands the faun the item she brought back, an ancient dagger, but hands him back only one of the fairies in the box her gave her. The faun is furious that she did not listen to him and ends the trial.
Back in the real world, the hunt for the resistance fighters is on. The Captain has decided to starve them out of hiding and confiscates all of the food in the area and locks it away, taking the only key to the storeroom from Mercedes. The insurgents blow up two trains to create a diversion. When the troops return from investigating the explosion, the storeroom has been unlocked, and all of the food is missing. The Captain follows his hunches to uncover the conspirators in his household. A new doctor is put in charge of Carmen, and she dies in childbirth. In the meantime, Ofelia has been forgiven and allowed one more chance to complete her trial. She is instructed to bring her newborn brother to the faun. Unfortunately, the Captain sees her, and follows her into the maze where the film climaxes.
Pan’s Labyrinth spends as much time in the real world as in its fantasy world. Del Toro toggles between the stories expertly, relieving some of our tension at the horrible acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Captain by letting us escape with Ofelia. But he never allows the suspense to dissipate completely; this is no Disney fairytale. The trials are frightening, and Ofelia is put on her guard when Mercedes tells her that fauns cannot be trusted. Del Toro has shown his complete ease with make-believe in other films; therefore, he finds it unnecessary to decide whether Ofelia’s fantasy world is real or not. This decision frees the audience from worrying about this detail and allows it to surrender completely to his story. All directors could learn a lesson or two from del Toro’s less-is-more approach to CGI. The effects, CGI and otherwise, in this movie are sophisticated, subtle, and appropriate. They don’t seek to reinvent the wheel with regard to a fairytale look, yet still manage to be original and surprising, particularly the Pale Man creature.
There are a few over-the-top moments that knock this film off its masterpiece pedestal, but nonetheless, add to the audience’s enjoyment. The Captain’s villainy is poured on with a bit too much relish. One wince-inducing scene (the man in the seat next to me was doubled up and moaning in agony watching it) demonstrates that the Captain, far from being completely cold, relishes pain. It reminded me of a scene from Urban Cowboy (1980) in which the no-good Wes (Scott Glenn) is shown full-face, playing with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle he just emptied, twisting it between his teeth in a leer of pure evil. In another scene, Mercedes’ desperate run from the outpost ends in a far-too-pat moment designed strictly to provide a payoff to the audience.
Ultimately, we are left with a nagging question that melds the two stories together. Was the final test in the trial completed the way we are led to believe it was? I think that to win a kingdom, enormous sacrifices must be made. The resistance fighters understood this and were willing to lay down their lives to be free. In the end, Ofelia’s essential purity may have been what the faun was always after.