Bookended by images of a bloodied child, Pan’s Labyrinth is a graphically violent film, pushing the limits of watchability, for example, during a needlessly protracted scene in which a character stitches up his own sliced-up face. Set during the Spanish Civil War, this “fairy tale for adults” (as people won’t stop calling it) earns its R rating somewhere in the second or third reel with a surprisingly gruesome, savage, and cold-blooded beating of two pitiable peasants. Well, after all, this is war, and with Fascists no less.
Rendered fatherless by the war, Ofelia and her enceinte mother relocate to a countryside manor, also unfortunately the front lines of post-war combat against Republican insurgents where the mother’s new husband, Vidal (the dourly handsome Sergi L³peza), a sadistically cruel Captain in Franco’s Army, is stationed. To the consternation of her parents, Ofelia is a bookworm hopelessly lost in fantasies, and, frightened of the Captain, her mother’s declining health, and the encompassing conflict, she uses a labyrinth on the property as the starting point for an elaborate escapist fantasy involving a frightening Faun (the film’s Spanish title literally translates to The Faun’s Labyrinth), a handful of fairies, and an assortment of various creatures, most notably a child-eating monster with his eyes in the palms of his hands. Fighting off the helpless anonymity imposed on her by the war and her mother’s illness, in Ofelia’s fantasy she is the reincarnated spirit of a Princess who must complete a series of difficult allegorical tasks to prove her worthiness, while elsewhere the fighting rages on. It’s a curious juxtaposition; the “real world” is portrayed as dreary and gray, but so too is much of Ofelia’s fantasy world and its characters, the colors faded as the violence of the parallel external war seeps into her dreams.
Unable to be sufficiently described in words, the film’s imaginative and gorgeous visual style is its strongest point—evidenced by its racking up the technical Oscars—welcomely using CGI only minimally, primarily opting instead for make-up, animatronics, and constructed sets.
Pan’s Labyrinth’s greatest fault is in adopting the moral simplicity of the fairy tale form; being intended for adults, it could’ve better served its revisionism by deconstructing the stark dichotomy of good, represented by Ofelia and the Republican guerrillas, and evil, represented by the Captain and his army, that it instead willfully embraces. It isn’t exactly interesting or courageous to make an anti-Fascist film, regardless of the modern Fascist revival amongst Islamists and neocons. It is somewhat courageous, however, for del Toro to follow the story to its tragic though logical conclusion, and I think it’s “happy ending” is only deceptively so. Thematically, Pan’s Labyrinth is at times complex and at others facile, but surrendering to its charms does tend a moving, old-fashioned cinematic experience.