Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy-horror-war film, set in the war-torn Spain of 1944, is an obvious attempt to follow-up his previous THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, which also set supernatural elements in the context of the Spanish Civil War. The film is beautiful and frequently moving, but it cannot quite match the heights of its predecessor, due to a narrative that remains in the inchoate stages far too long, before finally narrowing its focus in the second half, at which point it lives up to all expectations and more.
The story follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose widowed mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has married Captain Vidal (Sergie Lopez). The film begins with Carmen and Ofelia driving to an isolated mountain location, where Vidal is busy routing out the remnants of the rebels in the aftermath of the Civil War. Along the way, Ofelia encounters a large gleaming insect, rather like a preying mantis, which she takes for a fairy, because of its fluttering wings. She is also enchanted by an ancient stone labyrinth near to her new home. It soon becomes apparent that Vidal is a professional sadist who ruthlessly kills guilty and innocent alike, and his only concern for Carmen is that she live long enough to give birth to the son she is carrying in her womb. While Vidal goes about searching for the partisans, Ofelia escapes into a fantasy world in the labyrinth, where she encounters a faun (Doug Jones), who sets her a series of tasks to prove that she is indeed the reincarnated princess of the underworld. Eventually, the two story threads collide when Vidal pursues Ofelia into the labyrinth (shades of THE SHINING), where she carries her newborn brother for an encounter with the faun.
As in DEVIL’S BACKBONE, the message seems to be that war is hell on earth, especially for children, and the dark realms of fantasy and imagination – even at their most twisted and horrific – cannot supercede the all-too-real and cruel violence that mankind perpetrates on itself, in the form of armed conflict. The difference is that DEVIL’S BACKBONE was a ghost story; PAN’S LABYRINTH is more reminiscent of Alice’s adventures in wonderland. This works to the new film’s detriment.
DEVIL’S BACKBONE’s unrestful spirit was a metaphor for war and violence, a tiny example of the thousands whose lives were cut unfairly short, but it was also the basis for a mystery plot that fueled the narrative: the newest orphan had to find out why the ghost was haunting the orphanage and what it wanted. This thread tied in neatly with the rest of the story’s characters and conflicts, which offered up a microcosm of the war going on outside the walls of the orphanage.
In PAN’S LABYRINTH, on the other hand, the excursions into the labyrinthine realms of fantasy feel like excursions away from the plot. Certainly, there are some parallels between the two worlds: the shape of mandrake root Ofelia uses to “cure” her mother suggests the unborn child Carmen carries; the faun seems to be some kind of mirror image of Vidal, a second surrogate father to stand in for the real one who died years ago. Yet the point remains elusive for the first half of the film, which unwinds at a measured pace without clarifying its ultimate direction.
Fortunately, after Carmen gives birth, the film gains focus as the crisis hits, stranding the lonely Ofelia with that oldest of fairy-tale ogres: the wicked step-parent (in this case, Vidal). With so much at stake, and so little real-world resources to protect her, the fantasy elements start to make more sense. Where else can Ofelia turn for help?
The threads converge in the final confrontation in the labyrinth. Up till this point, Del Toro’s direction has carefully avoided the issue of whether Ofelia’s fantasy world exists outside of her own imagination, presenting it as a parallel reality – with its own set of terrors – not a flight of escapist fantasy. Ofelia confronts the faun, who is carrying a knife clearly meant to sacrifice her baby brother; the faun insists he wants only a drop or two of blood, but the young girl refuses to hand him over. A switch in camera angles shows Ofelia from Vidal’s point of view, and we see her talking to empty air, suggesting that the faun is only a fantasy.
In the end, PAN’S LABYRINTH tells us that such fantasy offers no real escape from dreadful reality. It can provide only a psychological buffer, a way of interpreting the world that may guide our actions and hopefully nuture our better nature. When awful choices are presented, the film says, those with imaginations may choose more wisely than the hard-hearted realists.
Director Guillermo Del Toro chose English-speaking actor Doug Jones to play both the Faun and the Pale Man, despite the fact that the film was shot in Spanish, a language that Jones does not speak. Jones had previously played a heavily made-up character in HELLBOY for Del Toro, who trusted the actor to handle similar chores in PAN’S LABYRINTH. The Pale Man does not speak, but the Faun had to be dubbed into Spanish by another actor. In order to facilitate the process, Jones learned the Spanish lines phonetically, so that the dubbing actor could match his lip movements exactly.
Despite the English-language title, the Faun never claims (at least in the subtitles) to be the god Pan himself.
EL LABERTINTO DEL FAUNO (”Pan’s Labyrinth,” 2006). Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Cast: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones, Alex Angulo, Manolo Solo, Cesar Vea.