Over and above the consistently solid performances from a talented cast, the real star of Pan’s Labyrinth is writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s imagination. His work is a captivating, albeit unstable, blend of anti-Fascist social commentary and a visually sumptuous childhood fable. In the wake of WWII and the devastating Spanish Civil War, it’s easy to see why Ofelia (Baquero) prefers to keep her mind absorbed in fairy tales, though she’s closely attuned to the sufferings of the widowed and now re-married and pregnant mother (Gil).
Along with her mother, Ofelia comes to live with her new father, Vidal (López), the commanding officer of a Fascist regiment, at a remote villa. The sprawling estate doubles as Vidal’s residence and his headquarters for launching raids against anti-Fascist partisans plotting insurgency in the local mountains. To say Vidal is a brutal S.O.B. would be an understatement; del Toro goes out of his way time and again to show just how much Vidal relishes killing and inflicting pain on his enemies. He’s the furthest thing from the warm-hearted father figure for the solemn Ofelia who promptly spends most of her time at her mother’s bedside while the latter tries to see herself through a difficult pregnancy. But all is not what it seems in this household: Under Vidal’s nose, there are elements allied to the insurgency and who stealthily give food and aid to the rebels ensconced in the surrounding forest. Among them is Mercedes (Verdú), the earthy housemaid and the sister to the leader of the rebels, who, in her own modest and desperate way, hopes to thwart Vidal and his Fascists’ machinations. Also aiding this scrappy underground is Ferreiro (Angulo), the noble and stalwart doctor in Vidal’s employ and charged with tending to Ofelia’s mother.
With this intrigue as her backdrop, Ofelia begins to realize that something of far grander importance is afoot, for abutting the villa is an ancient labyrinth, long in disrepair, but which proves to be a gateway to a fantastical realm. Led into the labyrinth by a sprite, Ofelia finds the labyrinth guarded by a faun, Pan (Jones). Jones’s delicious performance keeps us guessing whether Pan is an agent of good or evil as the fabulous creature informs Ofelia that she is a long-lost princess, and that he, along with an entire kingdom, have long waited for her return. Pan tells her she can regain her place on her throne only by successfully carrying out a series of dangerous tasks. Steeled now by a sense of purpose that takes her away from her unendurable life, Ofelia signs on for the mission.
Ofelia’s travails, which include confrontations with a monstrous toad and with a ghoul with a fetish for eating children, have the expressionist spookiness of the best children’s fables. That this is an original work of the imagination, as opposed to an adaptation of an already well-established literary work, is a testament to the del Toro’s marvelous resources as as storyteller. The writer-director interweaves Ofelia’s story with parallel plotlines involving Vidal, Mercedes, and the anti-Fascist partisans and, later, the fate of Ofelia’s newborn brother.
Pan’s Labyrinth is saturated with bursts of bloodshed which blanket the film all-too-evenly and, hence, feel gratuitous. We’re never sure which story — Ofelia’s fantastical adventures or the grim wartime intrigues surrounding her– del Toro wishes to foreground. In a story like this, with both literal and allegorical components, the latter often comments on the former. But nowhere do we find a moral and thematic counterpoint to the acts of violence since both storylines involve equal doses of morbid savagery. Ofelia’s story doesn’t especially contain any insights about childhood innocence and selflessness that would enrich Vidal’s shows of brutality with added poignancy. Everything here, whether real or fantastic, seems equally brutal and lacking in intellectual shaping through.
Baquero proves herself an assured and guileless young actress. As Ofelia, she holds her ground confidently against del Toro’s visual energy as well as against the formidable López. Along with Ray Winstone (The Departed, Cold Mountain) and Ian McShane (Deadwood), López proves here (together with his work in Dirty Pretty Things) that he can play a villain as chilling as they come.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo, César Vea