Of course I’ve seen this film before. I am having a “me” day: this is my favourite film.
During the chaos of the Spanish civil war, a young girl cares for her mother who is pregnant with the child of a fascist army captain. But the girl finds herself captivated by another world that beckons to her as its princess, a world of monsters and fairies.
Activating unrelenting optimism in three, two, one…
I dragged a bunch of friends with me to see Pan’s Labyrinth in the cinema in 2006 with little knowledge of what it was besides that Guillermo Del Toro was the director, there were virtually two showings that week and no more. I am grateful I managed to catch it on release.
Where to begin? Pan’s Labyrinth is a gothic fairytale that does not shy away from horror. It is a gorgeously rendered and created piece of cinema that has not aged. The film follows Ofelia, a young daughter who dreams of far away places and reads books on fairytales despite adults telling her she was getting too old for them. With her father having passed away, her mother now was under the protection of a ruthless army captain, Vidal, and the two are forced to go with him as he hunts for Spanish militia resisting the regime.
Ofelia’s only respite from the doom of the real world around her comes when she meets a faun, a creature of wood and earth. The faun gives her three tasks she must complete if she wants to escape to a world where she would be free as a princess and save everyone she loves.
The film is a story of two worlds, both are unsettling and cruel, while Ofelia moves between them. But while one world is full of horrific monsters (the Pale Man sticks in every viewer’s memory forever) it is the real world that is more awful. Del Toro deliberately writes the first visceral death scene in this horror fantasy as a man getting his face caved in with a glass bottle. It is grisly and puts the more fantastic horror in its place. Simply depicting our world as an unjust, cruel and merciless one, where the innocent die and the noble die needlessly, everything is directed towards Ofelia’s fantasy being the better of the two.
It is a grim story, no doubt, and in some perspectives it could be seen as a tragedy.
It is however, doubtlessly, a gorgeously designed movie with heaps of atmosphere. It is Del Toro’s best film and possibly will be forever more. Even the CG elements still look decent today. Character-actor Doug Jones (seen now in Netflix’s Star Trek as Saru, but also in Hellboy 1 & 2) plays the Faun (and the Pale Man), not only in heavy make-up and costume work, but also having learned all of his lines in archaic Spanish. The Faun is a wonderfully morally ambiguous character; being either Ofelia’s only friend, a monster intent on stealing her away or a figment of her imagination. I love how the film has subtle design work, like how Ofelia’s mother’s bed has a distinctly faun-like design on its headboard (and more obviously, the old fig tree does too) or how Ofelia’s foster-father, Captain Vidal, resides inside an old mill room, where the cogs and wheels echo a clockwork mechanism; his father’s pocket watch being central to his character.
Upon watching this again, I have new found respect for the characters of Captain Vidal (Sergi López) and Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), they have some very strong performances together, representing two sides of a war. Pan’s Labyrinth has strong female characters in Ofelia and Mercedes.
It is a dark, Gothic fairytale film, full of amazing design and practical creature effects that amaze and deeply unsettle. Horror and fantasy films of today can learn a lot from this film, even the most recent works from Del Toro himself!
If you haven’t seen it, I bet you to do so. It is in Spanish with subtitles, and it may be too dark and grim for you, but it is remarkably hopeful at the same time that it is hopeless. A film people can discuss for hours.