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Film Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006; Directed by Guillermo Del Toro)

Like all good fairy tales, Guillermo Del Toro’s soul-shaking post-Spanish Civil War fable leaves you just as troubled as enchanted. It can be beautiful and sad, hopeful but tinged with darkness and death. It’s decidedly Grimm, but never quite grim. It’s also a technical, aesthetic, and emotional knockout.

Pan’s Labyrinth is the tale of a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who moves with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), at his remote command post. Vidal is a pitiless fascist in General Francisco Franco‘s service after the dictator’s victory in the Civil War, and is seeking to smoke out some of the last surviving pockets of Republican rebels from the dark pine forests around his post. He is not aware that both his housekeeper (Maribel Verdu) and his doctor (Alex Angulo) are aiding a local rebel band, though this petty tyrant suspects and despises everyone around him, especially his unwanted stepdaughter.

Repelled by Vidal and resentful of her mother for taking up with him and dragging her along, Ofelia awakes one night and follows an insect/fairy through an old stone labyrinth and down to a pit occupied by a sylvan Faun (Doug Jones). The creature offers her a quest consisting of three tasks; if she completes them, she can take her rightful place as a prodigal princess in a fantastical kingdom far from the rational horrors of her current situation. The challenges reflect the harsh turns that events around Ofelia and her family unit begin to take, but also complicate and obscure their implications. Her memorable encounter with the Pale Man, an infanticidal cannibal whose eyeballs fit into sockets in the palms of his hands, imparts an aggressive fairy-tale moral about greed and may have metaphoric implications for the fate of her newborn brother, but also carries unsettling symbolic resonance outside of any filmic-textual element in play.

Del Toro contrasts the insensible dream-logic of this magical realm and the ambiguous tasks that Ofelia must complete to reach it with the cruel and brutal lock-step reality of life under the iron fist of Captain Vidal. The captain’s prized possession is a watch given to him by his war-hero father. In this one totemic prop, Vidal’s tripartite obsession with martial glory, patriarchal masculinity, and cold technological certainty is synechdochized. The falangist authoritarian ideology that animates his viciousness, and that dominated the Europe of the mid-twentieth century, is likewise embodied in this symbol. Del Toro’s fantasy elements, in comparison with this expression of soulless rationality that leads to individual and mass suffering, are less logical and predictable, as might be expected in such a metaphorical binary. But what is most fascinating about them is their shared capacity for corporeal violence and rule-bound rigidity. The Faun, for all his dream-fulfilling promises to Ofelia, is no less authoritarian in his treatment of her as Vidal is, and Ofelia’s quest carries considerable personal risks.

The purposeful obscurity and underlying menace of these elements may prove to be a stumbling block to engagement for some viewers, but they are precisely what gives the film its rare, surprising power. Del Toro and his team of technical wizards (the creature design and execution is top-notch, and entirely deserved the Best Makeup and Art Direction Academy Awards the film was awarded) weaves this panoply of images – some of them wondrous, some of them painful, all of them unforgettable – together into such a beguiling and affecting whole that its complete impact is unanticipated but unerringly substantial. The fantasy world that Ofelia encounters is not a gilded escape from a harsh reality, as the modern fairy-tale narrative so often is. It is harsh and dangerous in its own specific ways, and no less difficult for fallible mortal vessels to navigate. For all of its fantastical lucidity, Pan’s Labyrinth‘s shaded sense of humanity (with some of the good and much of the bad suggested by that generalized term) is what makes it so unsettling and, ultimately, so great.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. August 16, 2013 at 8:47 am

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