We can’t think of any easy context for Guillermo del Toro‘s so very excellent "Pan’s Labyrinth" beyond his own 2001 film "The Devil’s Backbone," which, while good, now seems like it was just practice for what was to come. In "Pan’s Labyrinth," unapologetic dark fantasy butts up against an even darker historical setting â€” the story is told from the point of view of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl for whom fairytales are still very real and at least as vivid as day-to-day life. They provide an escape she may not fully appreciate from her alarming environs. It’s 1944 in Spain, and the Fascist forces are crushing the last vestiges of resistance left after the civil war. Ofelia’s mother has remarried out of a sense of self-preservation and is pregnant by her new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi LÃ³pez), whom the two are traveling to live with. She desperately hopes he’ll take to and take care of Ofelia, in part because her pregnancy seems to be killing her, but she doesn’t grasp the charming depths of personality. We do, because we soon see him "interrogate" a local by bashing his face in with a wine bottle.
Ofelia, regardless, has other things to focus on â€” she wanders off into an ancient maze behind the estate and discovers at its center an underground chamber with a faun (played, with the aid of puppeteers to provide facial expressions, by Doug Jones) waiting within. He tells her he’s been waiting for her, that she is the reincarnation of a long-lost princess and that he can return her to her palace and waiting royal parents once she completes three tasks to prove her identity.
Del Toro grasps that escape through fantasy doesn’t necessitate fluffy clouds and ponies. Ofelia’s other world is vivid and magical, but also filled with uncertainty and dread (and terror, in fact â€” the second task had us literally shaking in our seat). Still, there she is the main character, the important one, the one with responsibilities. In the real world, she and her mother are without power, living under the thumb of a monster of a man given leadership at a time when the world seemed to have gone insane.
"Pan’s Labyrinth" offers all kinds of visual splendor, from the overall richness of color to the lavish fantastical set-pieces to smaller touches of enchantment, like a mandrake root unfurling and coming to life like a baby (and don’t even get us started on the sound design). As the worlds begin to intersect, subtle parallels occur, from the soldiers’ opening of umbrellas echoing the breathing of a giant toad to, later, the stumbling of a sightless ogre being paired with a no less frightening real life correspondent.
The film ends on a note that’s both infinitely troubling and almost perfect, carrying with it the implication that adulthood is a terrible spectrum of moral compromise. We can’t recommend the film enough, though we have to wonder about its fate at the box office. "Pan’s Labyrinth" is a splendid intersection of genre and arthouse, which may, like "The Host," make it appealing to no one in our compartmentalized moviegoing public. Not that we imagine Del Toro cares â€” much of what is exhilarating about "Pan’s Labyrinth" is that it seems to be exactly the film he wanted to make.
Screens October 15 at Avery Fisher Hall; opens in theaters December 29th.