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The Scarlet & Black

Pan’s Labyrinth unites childhood, war

Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” weaves history and mysticism so fluidly, one could watch the movie twice without noticing. The “real” world is Spain circa 1947, just after the Spanish Civil War. The “fantasy” world is centered around the “Underground Realm,” a mysterious land from which Princess Moanna has wandered. These two very different environments exist as through the eyes of a charming little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Banquero).
Del Toro masterfully explores Ofelia’s world, the dreams that fuel her adventurous spirit and the chaotic forces that throw her existence in jeopardy. Understanding the latter requires del Toro to explore narrative threads that run beyond Ofelia’s fanciful perspective, explicitly depicting the brutal feud between the fascists and the guerilla resistance. But these gritty scenes only complement Ofelia’s narrative and Del Toro is able to bring the two stories together in a way that does them both justice.
Part of what makes the guerilla rebels’ plight resonate so well with Ofelia’s story is the familial warmth that their interactions exude. The most compelling figure in those scenes is Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who balances her time between helping the guerillas and working as a housekeeper for the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi López i Ayats). Responsible for finding the guerillas in his region, Vidal also happens to be Ofelia’s stepfather.
This “coincidence” allows Del Toro to bring Ofelia gut-wrenchingly close to the frontlines of the rebellion. It also puts Mercedes in the position of having to both fight for her country and strive to keep Ofelia out of harm’s way. Ofelia’s presence amidst the battle between the fascists and rebels forcefully reminds us of the stakes that weigh upon the conflict. Both sides are fighting with the future in mind, hoping to bring their ideals to life via the next generation. Even the maniacal Vidal muses wistfully about his plan to pass the family watch on to his first son.
Yet Ofelia remains oblivious to the dreams of her elders. She has her own future to fight for, one that might seem naïve in comparison with the high-minded visions of the adults at war. Ofelia is assigned three tasks to complete before the full moon appears. She is given these tasks by a wry, gravel-voiced faun (Doug Jones). He believes Ofelia to be Princess Moanna reincarnated and promises that completing the tasks will cause her to be reunited with her father.
This assignment may seem a little hackneyed and schematic. In fact, it is safe to say that “Pan’s Labyrinth” would have been a better film if Ofelia’s journey through Spain’s magical underbelly had been a little wilder, not pettily divided into three neat little tasks. But the tasks are envisioned with such sumptuous detail and horrifying urgency that one cannot complain too much. Particularly memorable is Ofelia’s struggle to steal a dagger from the Pale Man (also played by Jones), a child-eating ghoul whose mouth is stained with blood and whose skin that sags in grotesque ripples. Credit must go to production designer Eugenio Caballero for Pale Man’s house, which consists of an elegantly arched ceiling and wallpaper that looks suspiciously like skin.
Credit must also go to Doug Jones, who manages to play the disgusting Pale Man and the alluring Faun with equal confidence and verve. His portrayal of the Faun is a masterpiece unto itself. The Faun remains a complex and dynamic character through the film, capable of winning our sympathies with his ability to relate to Ofelia (who is about a third his size) and stunning us with erratic bursts of savagery. The Faun is responsible for guiding Ofelia through the mystical landscape and his unstable behavior reflects the complex immediacy of Ofelia’s narrative. Her experiences may not be as rough and bloody as those of the grownups around her, but the challenges she faces are forceful enough to terrifying any adult. What makes “Pan’s Labyrinth” such a singular experience is the way it demonstrates how such hardships refine one’s character. As the rebel guerillas fight for a better future, so does Ofelia—and all of their convictions are relentlessly tested in the process.

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