Ivana Baquero in El laberinto del fauno (2006)

PAN’S LABYRINTH (Laberinto del Fauno, El)

(director/writer: Guillermo del Toro; cinematographer: Guillermo Navarro; editor: Bernat Vilaplana; music: Javier Navarrete; cast: Sergi López (Captain Vidal), Maribel Verdú (Mercedes), Ivana Baquero (Ofelia), Ariadna Gil (Carmen Vidal), Alex Angulo (Dr. Ferreiro), Doug Jones (Pan/Pale Man), Manolo Solo (Garcés), César Vea (Serrano); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Bertha Navarro/Alfonso Cuarón/Frida Torresblanco /Álvaro Augustin; Picturehouse; 2006-Mexico/USA-in Spanish with English subtitles)
“In no way can one mistake this for a children’s film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 42-year-old Mexican-born writer-director Guillermo del Toro has previously shuffled between making the arthouse political/metaphysical ghost story called The Devil’s Backbone and the Hollywood blockbuster Hellboy with at best mixed results, but at last finds the winner’s circle with Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a uniquely imagined rich phantasmagorical film that successfully blends together an adult gothic fairy tale, told through the innocent eyes of the dreamy twelve-year-old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and a realistic tale set in the Spain of 1944 when the Fascists already won their civil war (some five years ago) and Franco’s repressive government reigned except for the last remnants of the Republican army resistors who have taken to the woods hoping the Allies will come to their aid.

This stunningly gripping presentation of the mix of the mythic and world of politics during a time of Spanish Fascism, can’t help but remind one of Picasso’s “Guernica.” It also reminds one of the following superior movie fantasy classics: Cocteau’s Orphée, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, and Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive.

Ofelia’s pretty, ailing pregnant widowed mom Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is uprooted from her city home where Orfelia’s father was a tailor who died during the civil war, to be in a remote wooded military outpost in northern Spain, set near a mill, where her husband for the last year is the martinet and cold-hearted brutish Captain Vidal (Sergi López), of Franco’s army. He’s the one-track-minded commander hunting down guerrilla forces in the woods with savage force, and is so obsessed with having a male heir that he selfishly risks his wife’s life to bring her here so he can witness the birth.

The little girl is an avid reader of fairy tales, which upsets her mom, who considers these stories childish nonsense. Because of her curiosity, one day while walking in the woods, Ofelia stumbles onto a large stone labyrinth, which happens to be the home of a horned giant (7-foot-tall) who makes himself known as the faun Pan (Doug Jones). The faun convinces the wide-eyed child who is confused over what’s real or not that she’s a supernatural, born of the moon, who is an orphaned princess. The faun orders her to not question his decisions and assigns the too serious for a child but who is nevertheless still limited as a child, three magical tasks to regain her immortal crown. This begins a string of terrifying experiences for Ofelia that take her deeply into the fantasy underworld of myth and at the same time she must also deal with the earthly sadistic horrors of her stepfather and his torturous reign of terror.

The little girl deals with the monsters in the underworld and her stepfather, the monster in the real world, as best she can, while the captain’s courageous housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) is secretly helping the rebels along with the local doctor (Alex Angulo). And although Ofelia stumbles upon Mercedes in the woods she keeps her secret, knowing the difference between who is good or evil. The film is charged with purpose, as Ofelia’s struggle with the evil forces is not given to whimsy but seems real. As Ofelia tries to follow the magical cures given her by the faun to prevent her bed-ridden mother’s miscarriage and seeks to regain her underground home as the lost princess of legend, and she must also question if she will give up her inheritance to save another so the future will have a chance to be more hopeful.

As it turns out, the monstrous fairy tale is not as monstrous as the reality depicted. Though it has a “Once upon a time” element to it, in no way can one mistake this for a children’s film as it plays out as a grown-up tribute to the selfless sacrifice of love for humanity.