A fairy tale for adults is the best way to summarise Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, childlike, magical and full of dark menace in equal measure, the movie is an incredible experience. It could be considered a companion piece to del Toro’s earlier The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and he himself thinks the movie could be seen as an informal sequel. At the 59th Cannes Film Festival, del Toro stated that compared to the earlier movie, Pan’s Labyrinth is “a darker, more complex and metaphoric film.”

The movie takes place in a post-civil war Spain in 1944, when the 12-year old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves from the city to the countryside with her pregnant mother to be with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal is trying to eradicate the last of the rebels on behalf of the fascist government, and is cold and merciless, a human embodiment of evil.

A fairy leads Ofelia into an ancient stone labyrinth next to the small village, the centre of which is a spiral staircase cut into the rock which leads to carved plinth and a giant faun (Doug Jones). He tells her that she is the reincarnation of of an ancient princess and gives her three tasks to do before the next full moon. He hands her a blank book, and tells her to read it when she is alone for instructions.

Her first task is to feed a giant toad a handful of stones and pull a key out of its stomach. The second task is to enter the lair of the Pale Man (Doug Jones) and use the key to find a hidden dagger. Under no circumstances should she eat from the great feast the Pale Man has laid out before him. But she ignores the advice and eats two grapes awakening the creature, who has a penchant for eating children.

Meanwhile, Vidal is trying to brutally suppress the rebels whilst trying to discover the identity of the informant in the village who is smuggling antibiotics to the wounded freedom fighters hiding in the woods surrounding the Captain’s troops.

Ofelia’s mother struggles with a difficult pregnancy, falling in and out of a fever, which is temporarily relieved when Ofelia, on the advice of the faun, puts a mandrake root in a bowl of milk under her mother’s bed. As the rebels finally attack the camp, the faun gives Ofelia one final chance to demonstrate that she is the princess of the netherworld.

The strength of del Toro’s work is that it effortlessly fuses the mysterious, surreal and nightmarish world of fairy tales with the brutal, dark and cruel reality of Spain under Franco. The art direction is astonishing, mixing del Toro’s unique vision with Goya, The Brothers Grimm, traditional folklore and hints of Alice in Wonderland.

Ivana Baquero is astonishing as Ofelia, giving an incredibly strong performance, reminiscent in many ways of Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Mathilda in Luc Besson’s Léon (1994). Sergi López oozes evil from every pore in his role as the heartless captain, although if a criticism could be levelled at the film, it’s that Vidal is so relentlessly malevolent that he becomes a cipher, and is not so well rounded as some of the other characters.

But this is a minor point for a film which is so wonderfully fantastical and works on so many levels. This film is designed to be allegorical and different meanings can be stripped from it, such as the perils of fascism and dogma and the loss of innocence for both Ofelia and Spain. The film deals with the difficult choices we all have to make and just as the faun is an ambiguous creature, capable of tenderness and violence, the reality of Ofelia’s world is for the audience to decide.

Pan’s Labyrinth [El Laberinto del Fauno] (2006)
Dir. Guillermo del Toro
Stars: vana Baquero, Doug Jones, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo, Roger Casamajor, César Vea
Genre: Horror, Fantasy, Drama

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