[Translation] “You’re getting older, and you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you’ll learn that, even if it hurts.”
Guillermo del Toro’s adult fairy tale is the first film picked to be given five stars, and it’s more than deserving of the credit. Winner of three Academy Awards – art direction, cinematography, and make-up – and currently sitting comfortably among the top rated films on IMDB, Pan’s Labyrinth is the Spanish writer-director’s finest film to date, a haunting, beautifully shot allegory that combines fantasy with the stark realities of war.
Set in Fascist Spain in 1944, pregnant Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her young daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrive at an isolated homestead to be with Carmen’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal is a ruthless military man, hell bent on annihilating the resistance hiding in the gloomy forest; his heartlessness is exemplified by his brutality, revealed early on in uncompromising fashion when a hunter and his elderly father is captured and bludgeoned to death. As the pregnancy takes its toll on her mother, Ofelia retreats into a fantasy world; a stick insect spotted on her arrival becomes a fairy that leads her to an ancient labyrinth near the farmhouse, and it is here that she discovers Pan, a faun who assigns her three tasks so that she can return to her real home, a magical underworld.
There have been a number of films focusing on the “lost children” in Spain as a result of the war – The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone (also del Toro) have also been read as metaphor. Whether audiences are familiar with the historical context or not, Pan’s Labyrinth is a powerful story. While the faun’s assignments are perilous, they do provide Ofelia with some hope, which is noticeably lacking in the real world. She submits to her fantasies, welcoming the challenges on the belief that on completion she will be able to leave her gloomy, harsh reality and take her rightful place as the king’s daughter. Yet her fairytale is not the stuff of Disney dreams, but filled with danger – the Pale Man in particular is truly terrifying, a horrific creation with sagging skin and eyes in his hands. Even Pan, Ofelia’s guide, is a dubious character whose intentions are unclear; as one character says, you shouldn’t trust a faun.
In terms of both artistry and narrative, Pan’s Labyrinth is a triumph. The real world, tinged with blue, is gloomy and violent with the horrors of war realised in gory detail. The only warm tones emerge in Ofelia’s fantasies, but they too are deceptive; the yellows and golds of the Pale Man’s world look inviting, but the invitation is trickery. Del Toro’s creativity and twisted imagination is fully revealed through the creatures inhabiting the magical realm, who are largely the result of wonderful make-up and costume design, instead of CGI. When computer imagery is used, it does now look dated, but really it doesn’t matter because the director clearly understands that creating a perfect image is nothing without believable, engaging characters. As Ofelia, Baquero displays both vulnerability and steely determination; her performance is superb. Each actor brings depth to their role – Vidal is cruel and cold, but also tormented by his past and his desperation for an heir, and he is one of the most complex, and dreadful, villains of recent years.
Pan’s Labyrinth harks back to the original fairytales, before Disney invented the “happily ever after,” when they were cautionary tales filled with menace. Make no mistake, even without the graphic scenes of torture and death this would not be suitable for children. Yet the imagination and expertly realised concepts that permeate every scene, the ominous, eerie beauty within it, and its bitter-sweet, tragic story make it one of the finest films of the last ten years.