Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is one of the most remarkable films of the past 10 years — something I was not prepared for when I first saw it. Even while recognizing del Toro’s talent in his previous films (sometimes more obvious than other times), there was little in his work to prepare me for this masterpiece.
The closest was probably The Devil’s Backbone (2001) — an evocative ghost story that was finally too transparent to be wholly effective, but which bears a relationship with Pan in its evocation of the work of Luis Bu/+/-uel. Pan also evokes Bu/+/-uel — sometimes very directly, such as in the image of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) with a straight razor in hand and a cigarette in his mouth, deliberately recalling Un Chien Andalou (1927) — but more gracefully, more organically.
Plus, the antiauthoritarian surrealist satire of Bu/+/-uel is here tempered by a poetic mysticism that recalls Jean Cocteau. Many of the fantastic elements in the film are Cocteau-esque: doorways that can be created by drawing a chalk outline, books that write themselves, alternate worlds within worlds etc. The Faun/Pan (Doug Jones, Hellboy) even speaks in much the same manner as the Beast (Jean Marais) in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). Indeed, it’s hard to escape the sense that if Bu/+/-uel and Cocteau had ever collaborated on a film, the results might be very like this. It’s as much a humanist outcry as anything in Bu/+/-uel’s work and as magically mystical as anything in Cocteau’s work. This is not meant to suggest by any means that del Toro has merely copied these other filmmakers. On the contrary, his sense of invention is purely his own, his filmmaking style personal, and the results are unique.
The film is hard to nail down in terms of genre. It’s a horror film, but only in part. It’s a fairy tale, but it’s more than that. It’s a slap at what Franco’s regime did to Spain, but it goes further to indict all forms of fascism — past and present, though its allegorical condemnation of modern fascism is slyly suggested rather than stated. Call it a passionate, horrific, sociopolitical fairy tale, if you like. It’s all this — and it’s also brilliant filmmaking.
On its simplest level, Pan is about the death of innocence. The story follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, Fragile), a young girl dragged by her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil, Welcome Home), to a Franco outpost in the Spanish mountains where her stepfather, Captain Vidal, has been posted to deal with the remaining Loyalists hiding in the hills. Once in this strange, inhospitable place, she finds herself drawn into the strange world of a nearby labyrinth … where she meets a faun. The faun informs her that she’s really the lost princess of the underworld — her soul having traveled through many forms, having at last come to the place where she can re-enter her kingdom. However, she must perform three tasks in order to prove that she hasn’t devolved into a mortal. In the meantime, the conflict between the two factions continues, intruding not just on Ofelia’s fantasy world (if it is a fantasy), but on her reality as well, especially as her mother grows increasingly ill by the day.
The brilliance of del Toro’s approach to the material is multifold. His general refusal to state where fantasy leaves off and reality begins is one of the film’s strongest points — and that fantasy is never quite dispelled, grounded as it is in a kind of innocent wonderment that cannot be killed, and which leaves its mark on the world. Moreover, del Toro understands the inherent darkness of fairy tales — and he makes his own fairy tale very dark indeed. (The sequence with the eyeless creature at the banquet table is the single creepiest, most intense scene of pure horror I’ve seen in years.) He grasps the basic concept that these fancifully horrific tales offer clues as to what awaits a child in less fantastic, yet often more horrific, form in adulthood. The violence is similar in both worlds. Fantasy merely offers more hope of things being put right — and that may simply be because childhood blunders are committed in ignorance, not in cruelty and arrogance.
It’s impossible to do this film justice in the space here. It’s simply too complex, too layered and too full of magic. Rich, deeply disturbing, often brutally violent, yet amazingly beautiful, Pan’s Labyrinth is everything movies should be and almost never are. Yes, you have to read subtitles, but what a small price to pay. Films this extraordinary don’t come along every day — or even every decade. Rated R for graphic violence and some language.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke