Movie Review: Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)


2-2-07, 9:08 am

Pan's Labyrith (El Laberinto del Fauno) Dir, Guillermo del Toro

A young girl arrives with her debilitated pregnant mother in a Spanish hillside garrison of Franco's fascist army to live with her new stepfather, the commander of the outpost. It is 1944, and though the civil war has subsided, armed guerrillas – mostly communists and other freedom and democracy-loving people – still harass the Spanish government forces. The girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), is about to embark on a fantastic adventure, and perhaps she can save her mother and herself from the clutches of the tyrannical commander.

Academy Award nominated Pan’s Labyrinth (Best Foreign Language Film among others) has two parallel plots. In the real world, the stage is set for a violent confrontation between the guerrillas and the fascist forces. Someone inside the garrison is smuggling supplies and information to the resistance fighters. Unbeknownst to most, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), the captain's trusted housekeeper, is aiding the guerrillas. Mercedes befriends the young Ofelia, and the two lives are drawn together as the plot unfolds. Verdú’s is an inspired performance.

The brutal Captain Vidal (Sergi López) will stop at nothing, not even torture and summary executions, to get the information he needs to find the whereabouts of the resistance movement. Actor Sergi López brilliantly blends the fascist’s mechanical precision with mythical evilness to portray a violent sociopath who viciously and methodically displays his instruments of torture to his intended victims before inflicting pain. In one scene, he discovers that the local doctor (Álex Angulo) may be involved with the guerrillas. His suspicions appear to be confirmed when the doctor disobeys the captain's orders and euthanizes a prisoner whom the captain has brutally tortured and will undoubtedly continue to torture until death.

'You should have obeyed me,' the captain snarls at the doctor. The doctor replies, something to the effect: I am not one to obey blindly without questioning. You are that kind of person, not me. The captain follows the doctor out of the building and proceeds to shoot him point blank. Only moments later, the captain discovers the doctor was needed to help his wife give birth.

This horrifying plot is paralleled by a magical quest. The two worlds intersect in the life of Ofelia, who understands little of what is happening in the real, though she knows that it is horrible. She is an intelligent and imaginative child inspired by ancient fables of magic and myth. It is in the magical world that she gains power over her surroundings and the will and ability to be more than simply a helpless child.

She meets a wood nymph who draws her to the labyrinth where she encounters the faun. The faun instructs her that she is the daughter of the king of the underworld and that if she accomplishes three tasks before the next full moon, she will regain her magical self and be returned to the underworld to claim her throne. She is given a magical book that only she can read, through which she receives instructions on how to carry out her tasks. Ofelia, eager to escape her stepfather’s brutality, accepts the challenge. The only question is can she accomplish these tasks in time to save her mother and reclaim her underworld domain.

This powerful story is beautifully rendered with memorable characters and innovative special effects. Academy Award voters should give this film serious consideration. Del Toro’s film is also a reminder that our real world is inhabited by resuscitated Captain Vidals who promote torture and violence to achieve their aims – e.g. the Bush administration and its supporters, many of who still consider Franco and the likes of Captain Vidal important allies in the Cold War and now the 'war on terror.'

But the most important accomplishment of this film, I think, is that it refuses to see portray life simplistically as the struggle of contending impersonal historical forces, e.g. democracy/communism on one side and fascism and brutality on the other. Ofelia’s struggle is one for the reclamation of essential individual humanity, one intimately linked to her developing personality and the love of life and care for those even less able to defend themselves than her. It is a struggle that, necessarily and without even her full realization, puts her on the right side of history – against the torture, war, death, hate, repression represented by her stepfather and his milieu.

--Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at