Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is set in northern Spain in 1944, after the victory of Franco and his fascists. The film revolves around Ofelia, a young girl whose father is dead and mother has re-married. Her new husband is a vindictive fascist army captain. The captain believes that a son should be born near his father and so has his pregnant wife and stepdaughter Ofelia are sent for to join him in northern Spain, where he and his men are locked in a tit for tat battle with anti-fascist rebels. The lonely Ofelia, whose only real escape, is into the fairytales she reads, appears to create a fantasy world for herself. As a way to deal with her environment, though soon the border between fantasy and realty becomes blurred, and young Ofelia finds both reality and fantasy can quickly turn into a nightmare.
Pan's Labyrinth is directed by the much admired Guillermo del Toro, who came to the attention of many genre and world cinema fans with 1993's Cronos. He then hit a more mainstream audience with Mimic and from there has managed to alternate between more independent personal feeling projects and studio fair. While always retaining his genre edge. It is his studio fair, Blade 2 and Hellboy that most people will recognise him for and they are very good mainstream genre films, but it’s in his more personal projects that he really elevates genre film to its highest plateau. The ghostly drama The Devil's Backbone is probably his best work to date. Even though many critics are calling Pan’s Labyrinth his "Masterpiece", which is a great way to get on the poster or trailer, I am not totally convinced that this new film, good as it is, surpasses the 2001 cult classic. Guillermo del Toro has in his independent Spanish language films established himself as one of the modern masters of giving fantasy and genre film a very real world feel. This is not something I like as much as more mainstream critics, not that I believe genre film has to in any way be camp and comic, just I didn’t come for the relationship issues and family bonding. That said when it comes to Guillermo del Toro, he does it so naturally and so skilfully I can’t fault him for it.
Although the fantasy element which has been heavily played up in the films marketing is an essential part of the film, Pan’s Labyrinth is a far more serious film than many will be expecting. The fantasy elements though well conceived and executed, actually do not occupy anywhere near the amount of screen time many will be expecting and the film carries a very human and arguably very socio-political message. Fantastic as Pan looks, as grotesque as the giant toad is and horrible as the pale man comes across, it is the monstrosity that is fascist ideology and its unquestioning avatar Capitan Vidal that are the films real monsters. Some have described it as a film of two parts, but Ofelia's fantasies and the very real setting are both intrinsically important in delivering del Toro’s message and should not be separated. Yes Pan's Labyrinth may seem like a dark fairytale and can be described as such, but it is not necessarily just the fairy folk that qualify it. In fact it is the moral of the tale that makes it take on the quality of the traditional or classic fairytale. Other viewers will of course interpret the film differently from me, as is the subjective nature of art, but for me this is a tale about choices and the way we go about making them. It is a tale that looks at the way the right path is not always the easiest and may not always have the best consequences for us personally. It is a look at the fallibility that comes with being human and the way that even though our choices may not always be right, we should never be afraid to make them.
Though set in the 1940's only those sleeping at the back or whose waking state is never more than a subjugated, uneducated dreamscape will fail to see it's relevance to our times. The temptation to hand over our personal independence and liberties in favour of promises of freedom and defence by the seemingly strong is omnipresent. Pan’s Labyrinth highlights that the weak can be the strong, the strong the weak, the cowardly the brave and even a young girl can be more of a man than the unthinking automaton of authority. For how much strength is there really in never having question? Propaganda, rhetoric, hate and repeated mantra's can give an illusion of strength, but if you don’t question and make decisions personally where is your strength of character. Character like muscle should be built and the ability to make and stand by personal judgements should never be undersold or under estimated.
Guillermo del Toro, like the best storytellers presents us with a film where the allegorical though there for the taking does not overpower the story. If you want to just enjoy the film as a drama set in fascist Spain with a fantastic twist, there is no reason why you can't. The creatures are well designed and both Pan and "The pale man" are fantastically portrayed by "man in a suit" specialist Doug Jones (Hellboy, Carnies). The acting is fantastic across the board with stand out turns from Álex Angulo (Action mutante, The Day of the Beast) as the doctor and Sergi López (Between Your Legs, Sólo mía) as Capitan Vidal. Ivana Baquero who some might remember from Francisco Plaza's Romasanta gives a very mature turn as young Ofelia. The stand out for me though is Maribel Verdú as Mercedes; she also has arguably the best scene when she stands up to Capitan Vidal.
Beautifully crafted, shot and realized, Pan's Labyrinth has a timeless quality and an intelligent undertone that will have viewers revisiting it for years to come.