A Harry Potter adventure story where the hero is a heroine, Pan's Labyrinth envisions a chamber of horrors rooted in adult violence more nightmarish than anything J.K. Rowling could conjure.
Realism and fantasy have rarely combined with such sublimity as they do in Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's (Hellboy, Cronos) grimmest of fairy tales, which offers female heroism and resilience as an antidote to the adult male malevolence personified by a Spanish fascist, Capt. Vidal (Sergi López).
In a remote army outpost after the defeat of the Resistance in 1944 Spain, Vidal awaits the arrival of his new bride, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), pregnant with the captain's son, and her daughter, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish, dreamy little girl who imagines her new forest home is filled with fairies and fauns. Searching for fairies in the woods and ruining her tidy shoes in the forest muck, she is a bad match for the squared-away, clock-checking fascist stepfather who dreams of a "new, clean Spain."
As Pan's Labyrinth unfolds, that imaginative world that Ofelia finds in the forest surrounding the fascist compound is presented not simply as fantasy, but as a needed emotional escape. Del Toro strikes a magical, profoundly sad balance between the captain's sadistic, death-tripping world and Ofelia's journeys to the underworld. Anxious to prove herself an exiled princess, she strikes a bargain with a towering, prissy faun named Pan (Doug Jones), who dwells in a labyrinth behind her new home. If she can pass his tests, she will escape the violence of her world for passage to a new one.
And the escape Ofelia longs for is death, a welcome adventure amid the rank demons such as Capt. Vidal living above ground.
An evil of recognizably human dimensions, Vidal seems to lack the normal human qualities of heart and pulse, appearing instead to use a pocket watch to calibrate his functions. The political violence represented in his dark patriarchy is beyond imagination and far more hideous than the mucus-hurling toads and eyeless skin-creatures Ofelia encounters below the earth's surface.
Ofelia's double is Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), another brave and resilient woman engaged in her own adventures above ground. While working as the captain's housekeeper, Mercedes slips away to bring supplies and letters to the Resistance fighters who, like Ofelia's mythological creatures, hide in the woods.
In Pan's Labyrinth, there are divides of male and female, aboveground and underground, nature and a grotesque form of civilization represented by the captain. But the divide between child and adult is Pan's Labyrinth's most heartwrenching dichotomy. While adults are compromised and tainted for having tasted the evil the world has to offer, children still have the power to escape into their transformative fantasy life.
There are shades of other dark enchantments in Pan's Labyrinth, most visibly Alice in Wonderland, but the spell del Toro's film casts is uniquely its own, steeped in history and folklore and a demonstrably fertile visual imagination yoked to a story rich enough to do it justice. The fascists are the inverse of life, and of the earthy, compassionate, life-giving peasants and healers personified by Mercedes, Ofelia and a Resistance's sympathetic doctor (Alex Angulo). While Mercedes offers Ofelia milk and honey, delivered straight from the udders of another generous female, the captain holds Ofelia's warm hand with a leather glove and recoils at her female dreaminess.
Del Toro's visual imagination is a mix of mythology and science fiction, and his camera is omnivorous, gorging on possibility as it magically delves even into the underground of Carmen's belly to show her unborn son floating like an astronaut, his head cocked to listen to one of Ofelia's stories. In Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro's blend of realism and imagination moves beyond mere sci-fi parable; his film has more applicability than we may care to see, to our own traumatized innocents living in an adult world of death and destruction.
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