2006Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu
uillermo Del Toro has been gearing up for a classic since the flawed but intriguing Cronos and the well-made but rather standard ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. And with the astute, haunting, and wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth, he’s made it. A fantasy in the vein of Alice in Wonderland or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there are few modern comparisons. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away comes to mind, but Del Toro’s film doesn’t engage in whimsical diversions—it’s a more focused and potent tale of political and moral corruption, personal and social courage and, in the end, magic in the real world.
The basic narrative is thus: a young girl, Ofelia, travels with her pregnant mother and adoptive father to a rural area in Northern Spain, 1944. Soon drawn into an old stone labyrinth, Ofelia is told by a faun that she is an immortal princess of the underworld. To reclaim her throne, however, she must complete three tasks. Concurrently, Ofelia’s cruel stepfather hunts left-wing rebels in the surrounding woods. As the bloody violence of the real world escalates, so too does the intensity of Ofelia’s own quest to reclaim her place in eternity. A simple tale, but hardly derivative: Del Toro is creating archetypes all his own.
The backdrop of the Spanish civil war should be a familiar one to those who have seen The Devil’s Backbone. And while Del Toro calls Devil’s Pan’s brother, it seems more apt to call it the sister. Pan’s has an overt feminine energy. (There is a great deal of ooze and gloop, primeval life-stuff, flowing through the narrative—not to mention blood.) Again and again Ofelia is confronted with the themes of labor and delivery, almost as an affront to the death of the surrounding war. Perhaps as a consequence, the female characters are impressively drawn and varied. Outside of Volver, it’s hard to think of a recent high-profile film that leaves its dramatic resolution and pivotal moments in the hands of such capable women.
The male performances are not to be overlooked either. Sergi Lopez offers a complex and layered Capitan Vidal, a character haunted by the ghosts of his father’s expectations. Vidal rules his professional and private life with fear, masochistically terrorizing those around him.
Most important, everyone’s story is given time to breathe. In one scene, a leftist rebel, about to have his leg amputated, asks the doctor to wait for just a few seconds before he begins the first stroke of the crude saw. The soldier closes his eyes, wordlessly closing whatever internal doors he must before his leg is taken. The film is imprinted with such detailed respect for the characters and narrative—a respect that’s all too often lacking in today’s cinema.
The design and prosthetics used in Pan’s Labyrinth are earthy and fresh, imbued with the same atavistic murk and muddy vigor of the characters from Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. However, the grotesque creatures are not horrific, rather, they seem part of the natural world. Perhaps this is the key to the integrity of the film: it does not propose the existence of magic. It confirms it.
Pan’s Labyrinth is currently playing in limited release.