Accompanied by her parents, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves from a large Spanish city to a rural area in the North of the country. Faced with the upheaval of moving home, an abusive stepfather (Sergi Lopez) and the general unpleasantness surrounding Franco's victory in 1944, Ofelia enters an imaginary world of creatures and demons, in a bid to escape.
In juxtaposing the realism of a Fascist state’s adherence to spirit-crushing violence with the soaring fantasies of an innocent’s dream world, director Guillermo del Toro has created one of the most damning indictments of dictatorial politics ever filmed. Yet what ultimately emerges from his extraordinary Pan’s Labyrinth is intrinsically humanistic; a celebration of the strength of spirit mankind possesses to overcome such evil.
A distant woodland outpost, serving as a regional command centre for Franco’s troops in the period after the Spanish War, becomes the new home for 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Having lost her father in the war, she arrives with her heavily-pregnant and constantly unwell mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and falls quite literally into the brutal clutch of her new stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). He impatiently awaits the arrival of his unborn son whilst hunting for the last remaining leftist revolutionaries who live in the woods. Fearful of all that is new about her life, Ofelia escapes into the world of fairy tales by befriending the (seemingly) imaginary inhabitants of the forest – fairies, at first, then a faun (Doug Jones), the survivor of an underground world that lays dormant, awaiting the return of its child princess.
The faun, convinced Ofelia is the oracle of change for his woe-begotten world, charges her with three tasks that will confirm her regal heritage and restore her immortality. Committing to the responsibilities, Ofelia faces off against a giant toad, a grotesque 'pale man’ that eats children (Jones again, giving life to one of modern cinema’s most horrific monsters) and, ultimately, her very own existence. She does this with the aid of the Captain’s servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), all the while caring for a sick mother and dodging a militaristic stepfather more prone to graphic torture and murder in the name of nationalistic fervour than to fathering of any kind.
Conveniently labelled an 'adult fairy tale,' Pan’s Labyrinth certainly achieves a majestic sense of the fantastic in its envisioning of a world in which a little girl can escape the torments of her new life. The visage of the faun, for example, typifies a child’s eye view of new surroundings. Its face, framed by enormous horns, carved from wood; its gait, determined by goat-like legs; its voice a gasping, hissing whisper until it becomes enraged – elements that instantly fill the adult viewer with dread, yet Ofelia warms to its presence almost immediately. Like Red Riding Hood’s reaction to the wolf in Grandma’s bed, or Alice’s stoicism in the face of a menagerie of mystifying life forms, Ofelia only fears that which she has been taught to fear; the unusual merely represents opportunity, however bizarre, yet the mundane grey uniform and heavy firearms worn by her father epitomise the real horrors of her existence.
Such symbolism is one of the more obvious but no-less affecting parallels that del Toro draws between the innocence of his heroine and the people of Spain at the time of Franco’s ascension to power. The metaphors run deep in the director’s self-penned script – all remnants of the warm life Ofelia once knew are torn away from her; both the intellectual (embodied by Alex Angulo’s Doctor) and the traditional man of the land (represented early in the film by a doomed father and son, taken by Vidal’s troops whilst hunting rabbits) are disposable to the New Order; the hideous 'pale-man’ sits dormant guarding a vast feast, yet awakens with murderous intent when Ofelia dares to take two grapes.
Pan’s Labyrinth achieves its greatness on many levels – its precision as a work of visual artistry (its Oscars for cinematography, make-up and art direction attest to that); the manifestation of del Toro’s words by his cast (Baquero is heartbreakingly lovely; Jones was certainly worthy of a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his creature creations; Lopez’s Vidal is one of international cinema’s most loathsome villains); and the complexity of the film’s allegorical ambitions emerge with a simplicity that resonates long after the film ends.
Guillermo del Toro’s fearless, shattering final moments all but ensure an American remake will never happen – Hollywood would not dare take the leap of faith, both in the rich material and audience intelligence, that the director demands with his climax. The close-out of Pan’s Labyrinth not only underlines its status as one of the great fantasy films of all time, but also its importance as a work of refined social and historical commentary.
Watch 'Pan's Labyrinth'
Thursday 4 February, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Sunday 7 February, 1:55am on SBS World Movies
Tuesday 9 February, 11:40pm on SBS World Movies
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, War
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdu