Mark Reviews Movies

PAN'S LABYRINTH

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo, Doug Jones

MPAA Rating:   (for graphic violence and some language)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 12/29/06 (limited)



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Review by Mark Dujsik

Billed as a fairy tale for adults, Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is a dark, creepy, sad tale of incorruptible innocence and ultimate sacrifice. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro has created a work of profound imagination, juxtaposing the horrors of fantasy and reality. Set against the backdrop of 1944 Franco-ruled Spain, there are two worlds at odds but strangely united here: one conceived in a child's imagination and one founded by a fascist regime. Using traditional makeup, visual effects, and bizarre set design, del Toro creates the disturbing world of a child's imagination heavily influenced by the real world she is forced to occupy. But is the world of fairies, a faun, a giant toad, and a so-called "pale man" really one entirely in a young girl's mind, or is it just as real as the world of brutal torture, senseless murder, and ever-growing paranoia? Del Toro leaves the final decision to the viewer, but there is a solid answer amidst the ambiguity, which is much simpler than most folks have made it out to be. There's some effective, unaffected symbolism here, and del Toro uses fluid editing to bridge the seeming gap between fantasy and reality. When they finally, violently, and painfully collide in the film's climax, the results are tragic.

Before our story officially opens, we hear the tale of an underground realm, a princess who left it, and a father expectantly waiting her return. Immediately after, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in a heartbreaking performance of childhood innocence) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) are being driven down a countryside road to their new home. Along the way, they stop, and Ofelia discovers a mysterious idol with a missing eye. She replaces the stone eye in its place, and a large, flying insect emerges. The bug follows the mother and daughter as they arrive at an old mill, turned into the home and headquarters of Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), Carmen's new husband and a man she wants her daughter to call father.  "It's just a word," mother reassures daughter, still mourning her natural father's death. At the fringes of the mill, there's a mysterious stone entryway, which Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), a maid at the captain's house, tells Ofelia leads to a labyrinth. At night in her bedroom, Ofelia is visited by the insect, which transforms into a fairy and leads her to the heart of the maze. There she meets a faun (Doug Jones), who tells Ofelia she is the princess of the Underworld and must accomplish three tasks to return.

The archetypical story might sound cheery and fanciful, but it is violent, bloody, and gruesome. While Vidal gives a foreboding impression straight away, early on, he shows the full extent of his malevolence. A father and son suspected of being rebels are brought to him for questioning. They insist they are rabbit hunters, but for Vidal, the threat of dissenters at his doorstep is too serious. After a vicious interrogation, he executes the son and beats the father's face in with a bottle. After discovering a rabbit in their bag, Vidal merely scolds his men that they should search subjects better next time. There are other instances as well, as when Vidal and his men walk through a group of anti-Fascist fighters, executing the survivors. When he encounters one wounded man and points a gun at him, the soldier pushes the pistol away from his face. It goes back and forth for an excruciating amount of time, until Vidal finally shoots him through the hand and head. Later, Vidal shows a captured man his tools of torture—a hammer, pliers, and an ice pick—and the sadism inherent in his discussion of their use sums him up perfectly. Sergi López gives a performance of pure, cunning, heartless evil as Vidal; even his routine of shaving seems treacherous.

Then there are the scenes that bring Ofelia into the other world to complete the faun's tasks. The first pits her against a giant toad inside a fig tree, which the faun tells her is dying because of the toad's presence. Her goal is to get three stones into the toad's stomach to kill it and save the tree. While the confrontation is certainly hazardous, there's also the problem that Ofelia goes off on the errand just before an important dinner Vidal is holding. Del Toro merges the seemingly mundane problem and fate of a fancy dress with the fantastical dilemma of the toad. Del Toro and editor Bernat Vilaplana also fluidly cut between Ofelia within the tree and Vidal investigating smoke in the distance—the remains of an insurgent camp. There are other similar moments of graceful storytelling, such as early on when the camera freely moves from Ofelia telling her soon-to-be-born brother a story into her mother's womb into the fantasy world of her story and back into the bedroom. In spite of the wondrous sights in the fantasy scenes, there's a sinister tone about them. The faun itself, while seeming to be helpful, is nonetheless eerie, and Mercedes tells Ofelia that her mother warned her to be wary of fauns.

The faun's motives are vague, but there's no denying the intentions of the Pale Man. The Pale Man is the guardian in the realm of Ofelia's second task. A gaunt, contorted creature with no eyes in his skull (but two on a plate in front of him), he watches over a dining hall. On the ceiling is a mural portraying him killing and eating children. The set design here, dull green tiles and tall pillars, adds to the ominous ambiance, but then again so does the captain's office in the inner workings of the mill—albeit more on the page of realism. While the pile of shoes in the corner of the Pale Man's layer seems an allusion to the Holocaust, a broken watch, meant as a memento of courage from father to son, that Vidal repairs seems a perfect summing up of his Fascist ideals of efficiency and unsentimentality. Those ideals are being dwindled away from forces without and within, as the resistance fighters against Vidal's stronghold slowly build momentum and Mercedes and Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo) have the courage to help them with smatterings from Vidal's stockpile of goods.

Ultimately, it is Ofelia's own courage that will determine Vidal's fate, and the faun's tasks are the forbearers developing it. Pan's Labyrinth is a visionary piece of filmmaking, and one that has already been raising arguments about whether the fantasy scenes are real or just Ofelia's overactive mind at work. Whether they are real to us is not the point. They are real for her, and in the end, that's the only thing that matters.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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