The combination of war and her mother’s remarriage to a Fascist captain proves to be too much for Ofelia, the heroine of Gullermo del Toro’s arresting fable of power and powerlessness. The time is 1944, the place is northern Spain, but the landscape is that of the imagination and, in del Toro’s hands, that is a location as frightening as any battle between the local partisans and the army trying the quell the last vestiges of the Spanish Civil War.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero in a stunningly mature and measured performance) is a dreamy eleven-year-old with a stubborn streak, given to reading fairy tales and being protective of her heavily pregnant mother, Carmen (Adriana Gil). As the film opens they are traveling to join Ofelia’s step-father, the Captain (Sergi Lopez), at remote mill to await the birth of Ofelia’s half-brother. Along the way, an unscheduled stop by an ancient, ruined statue and the subsequent meeting with an odd insect, part dragonfly, part walking-stick, and all plucky attitude, leads Ofelia into the eponymous labyrinth by the mill. Further exploration ensues, despite the warnings of the household’s maid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), that there is danger of getting lost in the old pile of rocks. Ofelia does, of course, but it’s the getting lost of falling under the spell of the faun (Doug Jones) who lives at the center of the labyrinth. At once cuddly and sly with his goat’s eyes and luxurious coat of fur, he regales the lonely girl with the promise that she is a fairy princess and need only complete three tasks before the moon changes in order to return to her realm and to her loving parents who miss her desperately.
Writer/director del Toro creates an alternate reality where danger is a constant state and where fantasy and reality are equally vivid. The look is dark and elegant, with a subtle use of sound design that provides an underscoring menace to all that transpires. The sounds of a razor being unfolded or of a fairy’s wing flapping with excitement are sharply etched with a resonance that is preternatural but oddly recognizable, like the fantastic images they accompany. The dark side inherent in the oldest folk tales is del Toro’s template, building on them so that the tale he has fashioned, while strikingly original, resonates with familiar themes and archetypes: a venomous toad that lives the roots of a tree, a piece of chalk that draws doors through which Ofelia passes into fantastic realms. The Pale Man (also Doug Jones), from whom Ofelia must steal a dagger, is new, but the tempting feast in front of him, which must not be touched, hearkens back to the classic myths, as do his eyes that sit on a plate before him and fit not in his face, but in the palms of his hand when in use. It’s at once terrifying and engrossing, as the forces of good and evil above ground struggle unaware of the equally vigorous, if less clear-cut struggle going on in the netherworld, and Ofelia, negotiating it all with steely courage and her wits, is a female archetype of stature in her own right.
By never explicitly giving away if what Ofelia is experiencing is real in an objective sense, or a trick of her mind in reaction to her surroundings, del Toro creates a tantalizing tension in the audience that is not there for Ofelia. For her, this world of fauns, fairies, and mandrake roots that whimper like babies is more real than the mortal world. Certainly, the captain with his unruffled attitude towards committing torture and murder, is less frightening, if only, slightly, than the Pale Man, who can be kept at bay by following the set rules. No such guarantees are in place for the a cruel and cold captain, who can beat a man senseless and never break a sweat, much less suffer a qualm of conscience, and who all to obviously views his wife and step-daughter as commodities that are all too disposable.
Though PAN’S LABYRINTH deals in magic and fantasy, the emotions it stirs and with which it toys are all too real. Insects may or may not transmute into fairies, but death is real and the constant companion of everyone in the story. Using metaphor, del Toro brings that feeling home in a way that makes a more straightforward, nonfantastic method of telling a morality tale seem hopelessly ineffectual. This is a magnificent piece of filmmaking with many levels, but one that speaks nonetheless, directly to the heart, sometimes like a dagger