Some directors try to excel in all genres while others feel very much at home in a particular genre, which is fine especially if that director is Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican writer and director has made action movies, moody dramas, and horror films, yet all of these films could be classified in a way as works of fantasy. His masterpiece, so far, is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) in which a young girl’s imagination and embrace of the fantastic triumphs over the rigidity of fascism. It is a dark and bloody tale for sure, but also one filled with beautiful images and a commanding performance from its young lead.
The movie was released in the fall of 2006 when I was studying at the University of Sherbrooke and unfortunately this was another case when the movie was only available dubbed in French. I always prefer watching movies in their original language, otherwise I feel like I have only paid for half the performances, and I could have perfectly understood the original Spanish track having spent several years in South America. However having seen Blade II a few years prior I was already on my way to becoming a del Toro fan and there was no way I was going to miss his newest film, especially since it was deservedly being touted for awards season.
Pan’s Labyrinth ended up winning Oscars for art direction, cinematography, and makeup, and long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones wears many layers of that makeup. Jones plays two characters in the film, the child-eating Pale Man who wears his eyes on his hands, and the Faun, a giant horned creature who acts as a guide for ten-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Ofelia’s pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is married to cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) who is hunting down rebels in 1941 Spain under the regime of Francisco Franco. This Vidal is quite the monster, a firm believer in fascism, in the use of torture on prisoners, and in executing farmers by cracking their skulls with a bottle.
Ofelia, her mother, and her evil stepfather are living in a large farmhouse in the woods, and inside these woods there is an ancient labyrinth. An insect that turns into a fairy leads Ofelia to the centre of the labyrinth where she meets the Faun who bows to her telling her she is in fact a princess of the underworld and must complete three tasks in order to return to her father the king. These are very dangerous tasks, and in addition to facing the Pale Man she must also crawl through the inside of a tree to retrieve a key from a giant frog.
The film hints Ofelia might be crazy or just be imagining all this. When the adults see her covered in filth they just see a misbehaving girl, and when Ofelia tells her mother about magic, Carmen angrily tells her there is no such thing as magic. What does exist in this world is a lot of cruelty, and the monsters in this world are not covered in horns, but wear a uniform. Vidal claims all of his violent actions are for the good of the country and claims to care for Carmen, but when she falls ill he is more worried about losing his male heir than his wife. As for Ofelia, he sees her as nothing more than a nuisance. If Ofelia is in fact imagining this fantasy world, then perhaps she is better off living there than in the real world.
The movie is so filled with symbolism I had enough material to write an essay about it for a Cultural Studies class in university. The number three, an important number in many fairy tales, is repeatedly used throughout the story. Ofelia must complete three tasks, there are three keys she must use in one of the tasks, three fairies guide her in her journey, and there three captains at the farmhouse including Vidal. The colour scheme is also significant, with the soldiers all dressed in dull grey, while the fantasy world is filled with bright colours.
I love it when a movie helps me with work, but watching Pan’s Labyrinth definitely does not feel like work. It also does not feel like any children’s movie, with its uncensored violence and mature themes. This is no Disney movie, but by now it should be considered a classic of the genre. Also, Doug Jones deserves some sort of award for being one of the greatest physical performers of our times.