One might be forgiven for forgetting that Guillermo del Toro’s new film, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is a Mexican film, not Spanish, since it is set in Spain, there is not a single reference to Mexico, and all the characters speak Spanish with a Castilian accent. And one might be forgiven for assuming that “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a film for children, based on the way it is marketed and the fact that the main character is a child (although it’s “R” rating should be a clue). And one might also be forgiven for assuming (as a friend of mine did) that it takes place during the Spanish Civil War since there are scenes depicting Franco’s fascist army fighting loyalist guerillas. But one can not be forgiven for dismissing this movie as an irrelevant foreign film that has nothing to say to contemporary American audiences.
The year is 1944. The rest of the world, on the other side of the Pyrenees, may be engaged in a great war, but for Spain, the war has been over for five years. And the good guys lost. But there are still a few loyalist bands of partisans, holding out in the mountains, hoping against hope, refusing to give up the fight. Franco has sent a military unit to stop and capture them. They are led by Captain Vidal (Sergi López); he may wear the uniform of Franco, but he might as well be a Nazi, for his cruel summary executions of innocents and his delight in torture. Back home, he has a pregnant wife, Carmen (Ariadna Gil); and for some selfish, machismo reason he has sent for her believing the child should be born by his father, regardless of how difficult the journey may be for the mother. Carmen is accompanied by her 11-year-old daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) from her first marriage, and their loyal servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú, best known to American audiences from the movie “Y tu mamá también”).
Naturally, life in a military camp, especially a fascist one, doesn’t agree with Ofelia; she’d rather lose herself in reading and inventing fairy-tales. Perhaps because of this, she isn’t too astonished to discover that a mantis-like insect actually turns out to be a fairy who leads her into an ancient labyrinth inhabited by a faun (Doug Jones) who tells her that she is the reincarnation of the long lost princess from a great underground civilization. She is told that her father the king awaits her return, but first she must prove herself worthy by completing three difficult and dangerous tasks involving monsters and other disgusting creatures.
At first, it seems there are two separate and unrelated stories here. One about a child’s frightening fairy-land and the other about the serious horrors of post-Civil-War Spain. You may very well wonder what’s one doing with the other. But by the end, the tragic answer becomes clear if you haven’t already noticed thematic connections such as finding the key to treasure, reasons to oppose authority, the necessity of self-sacrifice.
As I said, this is not a film for children. It has been described, by critics and the trailers alike, as a fairy-tale; but is it really? I guess it is, just as much as “The Wizard of Oz,” when you look at the real events in Dorothy’s life and how they are reflected in the land of Oz. In the same way, we wonder if Ofelia’s fairy world is real or not. And if it’s only imagined, we must look at what events in Ofelia’s real world have caused her to invent and convince herself in the reality of such a place.
Overall, I think it’s a very good film. The acting, especially by Verdú and the young Baquero, is very good. Emotional without being overly melodramatic. The score was also beautiful and romantic and really helped to set the magical tone of the piece. I also want to say how impressed I was by the special effects. Foreign films are not known especially for their effects, but I though that these were excellent—even better than those in “The Science of Sleep,” I’d say—and in the same league as any Hollywood film.
And yet despite that, it’s still a film that’s driven by story and character. The effects serve the plot; not the other way around. And it’s a film that will make you want to ask questions about politics and ideology and war, questions about children’s innocence and their attempts to escape unpleasant reality, questions about parallels between political violence in Spain under Franco and political violence in the American-dominated world of today, and questions about the very nature of reality itself.
Return to Chizfilm Movie Reviews