Over the last 13 years, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has pieced together a rather diametrically opposed body of work. On the one hand, he has quietly become a bankable studio gun by pulling off a rare feat in making a better and more successful sequel to a successful action film when he directed the bullets ‘n’ vampires film Blade II. He also surprised us in 2004 when he brought the indie comic Hellboy to the big screen.
But del Toro’s best work can be found in his two art house/horror gems Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), both Spanish language films that had reached their audience by word of mouth.
Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s latest offering, a Spanish fantasy/period film set in the waning moments of WWII under Franco’s Fascist rule. The story focuses upon a 12-year-old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Ofelia and her pregnant mother have come to live with the merciless Captain Vidal (brilliantly rendered by Sergio Lopez), who has been posted in the mountains of Northern Spain in order to weed out anti-Franco rebels. As this brutal extermination campaign is carried out by Vidal, Ofelia finds herself delving further into a world of the fantastic.
She is visited by a gregarious looking fawn-like mythical creature that explains to Ofelia that she is actually an immortal princess of a world beneath the earth and that she must complete a series of tasks in order to regain her status and live forever.
The film is rife with Christian symbolism and a formal deconstruction of the primary tenants of the fairy tale. Ofelia’s quest for eternal life is fortified by the inherent brutality and senselessness of the human suffering and extermination that surrounds her.
Pan’s Labyrinth is an evocative tale because it is stacked with symbolic imagery that, when allowed to roll around in the mind, serves as an exciting plaything. The beast that Ofelia must go up against is horrifying and chalk-filled with the violent imagery of Catholicism. But Ofelia’s fantastical forays into the labyrinthine world of her innocent imagination are stolen away by the dark and visceral struggle between Vidal and his cronies and the rebels.
In using equal doses of graphic violence and well tempered storytelling del Toro shows his strength as a realist filmmaker and tactfully describes the nature of evil without cheapening the film. Unfortunately, the fantastical element of Ofelia’s story suffers because of this and Pan’s Labyrinth at times seems a touch improperly weighted. In the end, however, this imbalance serves perhaps to heighten the tragedy.
Ofelia’s quest serves as a filmic round, with the end found at the beginning, which suggests that Pan’s Labyrinth will satiate that thrust for more with each supplemental viewing.