Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film takes two fairly formulaic and one-dimensional stories—one realistic, one fantasy—and weaves them into a deep, dark and startlingly beautiful fairy tale for adults.
Pan’s Labyrinth is set soon after the Spanish Civil War. Twelve-year-old Ofelia and her mother, Carmen, travel to the forested hills near Segovia to meet up with Ofelia’s “new father,” the captain of a Fascist regiment stationed there to flush out the last pockets of resistance to Franco. The captain is quickly revealed to be an irredeemably evil sadist with no concern for Ofelia or her mother beyond the son growing in the latter’s belly. (How Carmen could have brought herself to get involved with such a monster in the first place is never satisfactorily answered—her vague references to being lonely seem woefully inadequate.)
As her mother suffers the agonies of a troubled pregnancy, Ofelia retreats into a fantasy world inspired by her reading—particularly, we assume, of Alice in Wonderland. She even wears an Alice-style dress—suitably darkened and muddied—in one of the scenes. She meets with a faun (the translation’s “Pan”), who informs her she is the long-lost princess of a magical underground kingdom.
Inevitably, she is required to perform three largely random “tasks” such as finding an oversized golden key in order to prove that she is indeed the princess. Such clichés, though, are perhaps forgivable given that the film’s fantasy elements are supposed to be a child’s regurgitation of existing stories—especially when they are rendered with such visual panache. (The terrifyingly Goya-esque “pale man,” complete with eyes in the palms of his hands, is particularly memorable in that regard.)
Moreover, the dangers inherent in Ofelia’s imagined adventures reinforce the real dangers of the “tasks” performed by the captain’s servant, Mercedes. These tasks involve squirrelling away food, medicines, and even another key (this time to the captain’s provisions store-room), and then smuggling them to the resistance fighters in the dead of night. The fighters—amongst whom is her brother—are also living in a fantasy world in the sense that the war is already lost and they cannot hope to hold out forever. Yet it is Mercedes herself who points this out to them. Indeed, Mercedes’ grasp on life’s harsh realities is the very opposite of Ofelia’s—although, tellingly, she admits to Ofelia that she too believed in fairies when she was Ofelia’s age. (And, indeed, it is her remark that fauns are not to be trusted that puts Ofelia on her guard against the rather short-tempered and authoritarian Pan.) Mercedes is simply a grown-up version of Ofelia, whose belief in magic has been beaten out of her by three years of vicious civil war and another five years of merciless fascism.
Ultimately, both Mercedes and Ofelia are unmasked by the captain, but both escape to their otherworlds despite him. Ofelia’s escape route is obtained by doing that most un-fascist of things: disobeying orders. Specifically, she disobeys Pan’s order to shed the blood of her baby brother. However, her escape doesn’t prevent the memorable final scene from presenting a heartbreaking vision of innocence destroyed by an utterly incongruous violence.
Had the film been made in Hollywood, of course, innocence would have triumphed over brutality. But del Toro should be applauded for creating a film that, for all its fairy tale imagery, always keeps its fist clenched around reality’s nettle. It is not his fault that the nettle does not emerge with anything like the same credit.