In Gloom of War, a Child’s Paradise
Review by A.O. Scott dec 9, 2006 at The New York Times
Set in a dark Spanish forest in a very dark time — 1944, when Spain was still in the early stages of the fascist nightmare from which the rest of Europe was painfully starting to awaken — “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a political fable in the guise of a fairy tale. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Does the moral structure of the children’s story — with its clearly marked poles of good and evil, its narrative of dispossession and vindication — illuminate the nature of authoritarian rule? Or does the movie reveal fascism as a terrible fairy tale brought to life?
The brilliance of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is that its current of imaginative energy runs both ways. If this is magic realism, it is also the work of a real magician. The director, Guillermo Del Toro, unapologetically and unpretentiously swears allegiance to a pop-fantasy tradition that encompasses comic books, science fiction and horror movies, but fan-boy pastiche is the last thing on his mind. He is also a thoroughgoing cinephile, steeped in classical technique and film history.
This Mexican-born filmmaker’s English-language, Hollywood genre movies — “Blade 2” (2002), “Hellboy” (2004) and the ill-starred but interesting “Mimic” (1997) — have a strangeness and intensity of feeling that sets them apart from others of their kind. In his recent Spanish-language films, “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) and this new one, he uses the feverish inventiveness of a vulnerable child’s imagination as the basis for his own utterly original, seamlessly effective exploration of power, corruption and resistance.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is his finest achievement so far and a film that already, seven months after it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival, has the feel of something permanent. Like his friend and colleague Alfonso Cuarón, whose astonishing “Children of Men” opened earlier this week, Mr. Del Toro is helping to make the boundary separating pop from art, always suspect, seem utterly obsolete.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a swift and accessible entertainment, blunt in its power and exquisite in its effects. A child could grasp its moral insights (though it is not a film I’d recommend for most children), while all but the most cynical of adults are likely to find themselves troubled to the point of heartbreak by its dark, rich and emphatic emotions.
The heroine is a girl named Ofelia, played by the uncannily talented Ivana Baquero, who was 11 when the film was made. Ofelia is the kind of child who eagerly reads stories about fairies, princesses and magic lands, longing to believe that what she reads is real. Mr. Del Toro obliges her wish by conjuring, just beyond the field of vision of the adults in Ofelia’s life, a grotesque, enchanted netherworld governed by the sometimes harsh rules of folk magic.
That realm, in which Ofelia is thought to be a long-lost princess, may exist only in her imagination. Or maybe not: its ambiguous status is crucial to the film’s coherence. Like the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Mr. Del Toro is less interested in debunking or explaining away the existence of magic than in surveying the natural history of enchantment.
The forest around the old mill where Ofelia and her mother come to live is full of signs and portents: old carved stones and half-buried, crumbling structures that attest to a pre-modern, pre-Christian body of lore and belief. In much of the West that ancient magic survives in the form of bedtime stories and superstitions, and these in turn, as Mr. Del Toro evokes them, lead back through the maze of human psychology into the profound mysteries of nature.
Ofelia’s second reality — inhabited by a wide-browed faun, a man whose eyes are in the palms of his hands (both played by Doug Jones), a giant toad, some mantislike insects and many other curious creatures — can be a pretty scary place, and on her visits to it the girl is, like many a fairy-tale heroine, subjected to various challenges and ordeals. Still, this vivid world of fairies offers her an escape from the oppression of a day-to-day existence dominated by her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), an officer in Franco’s army who seems to live by the maxim that fascism begins at home.
A patriarch both by temperament and ideology, the captain treats Ofelia’s mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), with chilly, humiliating decorum, making it clear that she is of value to him only because she is pregnant with his son. He takes pleasure in the exercise of authority and in the trappings of military discipline, addressing himself to the torture of captured resistance fighters with sadistic relish. He seems happiest when he is inflicting pain.
The partisans up in the hills — and their sympathizers in the captain’s own household, including the housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the doctor (Alex Angulo) who attends to Carmen — represent one of the film’s alternatives to the militarized, hierarchical society taking shape in post-civil war Spain. Their easy solidarity and ragged mufti stand in emphatic contrast to the crisp uniforms and exaggerated obeisances of Vidal and his men. At his dinner table the captain gloats that Franco and his followers have defeated the “mistaken” egalitarianism of their republican opponents.
Like “The Devil’s Backbone,” which also took place in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is not overly concerned with moral subtlety. In Mr. López’s perversely charismatic performance, Vidal is a villain of the purest, ugliest kind. For Mr. Del Toro the opposite of evil is not holiness, but decency.
Ofelia serves as her stepfather’s foil not because of her absolute goodness or innocence but rather because she is skeptical, stubborn and independent-minded. Her rebellion is as much against Carmen’s passivity as it is against Vidal’s brutality, and she gravitates toward the brave Mercedes as a kind of surrogate mother.
Mercedes’s surreptitious visits to the rebels often coincide with Ofelia’s journeys into fairyland, and it may be that the film’s romantic view of the noble, vanquished Spanish Republic is itself something of a fairy tale. To note this is merely to identify a humanist, utopian strain in Mr. Del Toro’s vision, a generous, sorrowful view of the world that is not entirely alien to the history of horror movies. (Think of James Whale’s “Frankenstein,” for example, a film linked to “Pan’s Labyrinth” by Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive,” one of the few masterpieces of Spanish cinema made before Franco’s death.)
Fairy tales (and scary movies) are designed to console as well as terrify. What distinguishes “Pan’s Labyrinth,” what makes it art, is that it balances its own magical thinking with the knowledge that not everyone lives happily ever after.
The story has two endings, two final images that linger in haunting, unresolved tension. Here is a princess, smilingly restored to her throne, bathed in golden subterranean light. And here is a grown woman weeping inconsolably in the hard blue twilight of a world beyond the reach of fantasy.