El Laberinto del Fauno
Guillermo deo Toro
Mexico / Spain / USA, 2006
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 14 November 2006
Source Warner Bros. / Picturehouse 35mm print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
Faith is inevitably mixed up in fairy tales; how else could we readily accept that a woman could feel the slight nudge of a pea under a thick mattress, or that mermaids exist under the lulling waves of the sea? As children these tales are received with wonder, while as adults the strength of their memory enables at the very least a recognition of once held beliefs. Inescapably, faith and the struggle to maintain it is a difficult drama to portray onscreen, risking an excess of emotion that might push the film’s tone towards the saccharine or — perhaps worse — blatantly naïve, often incorporating symbolism that hits too sharply on the nose. There is also the subsequent issue of fairy tales being pigeonholed as children’s amusement, an unfortunate and frequent occurrence in the Hollywood marketplace that limits fantasy to action epics or works of animation, diminishing their value to simple, popular entertainment.
Bridging the gap between fantasy and reality, director Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, is a lush, remarkable, and very grown-up fairy tale. Uniting the incredible imagination of a child’s mind with the backdrop of Franco’s Spain, del Toro (whose earlier film, The Devil’s Backbone, utilized a similar political setting) takes his union of war and psychological escape a step further. While the adult characters in The Devil’s Backbone are motivated to some degree by politics, the bulk of the film focuses on a group of young boys and the ghost that haunts their school, creating a solid, stylish thriller. Pan’s Labyrinth, by no means less eerie (it is perhaps more frightening), is far more rich and engrossing in both its style and themes.
Utilizing a young girl as his heroine, the lovely, dark haired Ofelia, del Toro places not only fantasy but also children at the forefront of his fable. As the connecting thread, Ofelia opens the film on a journey to her new home in the Spanish countryside with her pregnant and newly remarried mother. Embracing the wicked motif of adoptive parents, Ofelia’s stepfather is not merely cruel, but genuinely evil, as Capitan Vidal quickly reveals his intentions to us, namely procuring a male heir from his new wife and expunging the revolutionary, anti-Fascist guerrillas who have hidden themselves in the forest surrounding his compound. Sensing her stepfather’s ill nature, and unable to communicate her fears to her mother, Ofelia seeks escape mentally, using the dense hedge labyrinth outside her new home as the location for her imagination to unfurl.
The world enveloping Ofelia’s mind is visually stunning; buzzing insects that reveal themselves as tiny, fluttering fairies, a gruesome, oversized frog who lurks in the bowels of a great tree, and the creature that guides Ofelia through her journey, the elegant, enigmatic faun who recognizes Ofelia as the lost princess for whom he has been waiting to unlock the spell over the labyrinth. According to the faun’s tale, Ofelia is only in the guise of a human, but has the ability to reclaim her right to immortality; the challenge in claiming the crown is a trial of three tasks, which seem as daunting as the difficulties the real world has presented to Ofelia. While Ofelia risks her life with tools of magic chalk and a telltale book, horror builds around her as her mother grows ill and becomes bedridden, and Vidal weeds out the rebels working in his own home. The tension is almost unbearable, yet strengthens the existence of fantasy both in Ofelia’s life and in the film, as it becomes quite clear that without her imagination, the young girl would be entirely lost.
While The Devil’s Backbone concentrated on orphaned boys and the men both supporting and taking risks with their lives, Pan’s Labyrinth’s strongest characters are its women. Although Ofelia’s mother is of little help to her daughter, Mercedes, the estate’s housekeeper whose meek appearance masks a steely character, guards Ofelia with a motherly instinct, all too aware of Vidal’s deliberate cruelty. Revenge, the key emotion in The Devil’s Backbone, is still visible but not as much at play in Pan’s Labyrinth, which instead steeps in a more physical world of birth, familial ties, and Ofelia’s mythical dealings with nature. The challenges Ofelia encounters in her quest are strongly influenced by or take place in the earth or long forgotten dwellings hidden away from the world of man, while the recurring location and source of mystery remains the labyrinth, a beautiful, ivy entwined maze that becomes both Ofelia’s safe haven and testing ground. The color palette of the film reflects the importance of Ofelia’s environment particularly in its use of green, the color that Ofelia wears most often throughout the film, a signifier of not only the myth’s connection to nature but also rebirth.
The intertwining of children with the brutal and often hopeless state of war is not merely a fascinating tableau for del Toro, but a subject examined with sensitivity and deference for what is a global and centuries-old problem. Reflecting the unfortunate nature of battle, children are placed in peril in del Toro’s films, and while war is the recurring theme, the selfish nature and ignorance of adults is more often the underlying source of their fears and brushes with death. As strong as her beliefs may be, Ofelia cannot evade the consequences that occur from the decisions made by the adults around her, despite any and all good intentions. Pan’s Labyrinth is fraught with sadness for Ofelia, and while she — like most children — deals with her unhappiness straight on, without fully realizing her situation, the message becomes clear to any adult; that complicated lesson that sometimes it simply won’t work out for the best, and life is as full of painful, trauma-inducing defeat as it is happy and fortunate chances. Despite this melancholy, del Toro’s gentle, symbolically tinged ending can be read as not only an acknowledgment of the power of storytelling, but also the strength of memory, which hopefully outlasts us all.