Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Dir. Guillermo del Toro; Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Maribel Verdú
[4 out of 4 stars]
For many, fairy tales are an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. Filled with fairies and other fantastic creatures, they represent an escape, a beautiful new world filled with wonder. This is not so in Guillermo del Toro’s classic Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Here, the mythical world is fraught with danger and violence, as is the real world from which our protagonist escapes. The magical realm highlights the violence taking place in reality and serves to draw a stark contrast between one world and another, which makes the brutality all the more pronounced and disturbing.
The film is set in 1944 Spain. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her recently-widowed and extremely pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) are traveling to a remote mill in the forest to live with Carmen’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal and his troops, under the command of military dictator Francisco Franco, are focused on defeating the “rebels” hiding out in the forest; beyond this local battle, little mention is made of the wider context of World War II. Vidal cares little for Carmen beyond her breeding purposes because he desperately desires a son. He tells the doctor (Álex Angulo), “If you have to choose, save the baby.” Vidal is concerned with defeating the rebel group and identifying the informant living in his midst. Ofelia hates her stepfather and prefers to read fairytale books, even though her mother scolds her and says she is too old for “such nonsense.” On her first day at the mill, Ofelia notices a grasshopper-like creature, buzzing and sparkling, who flutters into her room one night. She follows it into a nearby ancient labyrinth, overgrown with moss, where she first meets the faun (Doug Jones) and learns about the three tasks she must complete in order to acquire immortality. While she returns to her normal life, she intermittently voyages to the labyrinthian world to complete the three tasks.
While it all sounds somewhat magical and wonderful (fairies, fauns, glittering shapeshifting creatures), del Toro truly brings out the darker side of this fairy tale. Ofelia’s tasks are not simple tests of wit or easy feats; she must crawl into muddy underground tunnels filled with gigantic bugs crawling over her. She must defeat a terrifying Pale Man, whose skin hangs in folds off his body and whose horrid red eyes are in his palms rather than on his face. In this fairy tale, it is entirely conceivable that Ofelia might die. Even the faun is not sweet or welcoming; he looks foreboding, with his gigantic horns, scraggly beard, and knobby hands. The labyrinthian world, fantastic as it seems at first to Ofelia, is dark and dangerous, not at all the fairy tale escape she dreamed of. But, as she travels between the two worlds, we see that her real life is no better. Her mother soon grows ill as she nears childbirth, and Ofelia worries for her. Vidal, meanwhile, brutally kills two men only to discover they are only rabbit hunters and soon turns his attention to assaulting the rebel group. There is no safe haven for Ofelia.
Although both of Ofelia’s worlds are brutal and hazardous places, del Toro depicts them each quite differently. The mill is shown in all grays, browns, and blues, lit with a flat gray light. The world appears two-dimensional and monochromatic, almost claustrophobic in its reach. There is no where else to go, it seems. Even escaping up into the hills is not successful, and those lush trees appear grayish. Meanwhile, the labyrinthian world, terrifying though it is, is lush with color: rich turquoise for the faun, shiny green-yellow for the toad, deep pink for the fairies. Sometimes, color is used to heighten the horror, as with the Pale Man’s black-red fingers and horrible pinkish pale skin. But here, there is movement, and there is excitement, and although there is often horror and the very real possibility of death, there is also the possibility of life and escape and a whole realm other than Ofelia’s horrible life at the mill. Rather than offering some reprieve from real life, however, the labyrinthian world serves to highlight the violence occurring there, which is flat and unemotional and constant. People are shot in the face and tortured regularly at the mill as Vidal battles the rebels and attempts to weed out the informant at the mill. If you are not Ofelia, there is no alternative, no place to run or hide, nothing in the film to lighten the mood or lessen the tension. Del Toro moves between these two worlds with ease, sometimes using trees or other props to wipe from one world straight into the other, as if the two are right on top of each other, indistinguishable. These two worlds, with all their similarities and differences, appear to overlap with one another. By juxtaposing the two, del Toro highlights the extreme nature of both worlds and demonstrates how the horror of the real world is reflected in the magical world that is, in many ways, more nightmare than dream.
Moving across both worlds and a whole spectrum of emotions with ease is Baquero, who was only 11 when Pan’s Labyrinth was made. Baquero is earnest, but not precocious; she sometimes makes mistakes or doesn’t follow directions, as children often do. She imbues Ofelia with both pure childlike curiosity and incredible reserves of strength. From scene to scene, she weeps for her mother, bravely ventures into the labyrinthian world to complete a task, and earnestly colludes with servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). Baquero is a joy to watch and gives all she has to each scene.
While both worlds are dangerous and violent, the magic of the film is that Ofelia gets to choose which one she inhabits. Del Toro has said Pan’s Labyrinth is a film about choices; it presents a duality not only between the two worlds and whether or not to enter them but also between good and evil, innocent and guilty. Ofelia has the power to choose; those working under Franco and Vidal do not, and thus the young girl exerts a sort of control over the Fascists. Our protagonist has the power to select how she moves through both the real world and the fantasy world and how she will respond when faced with both good and evil.