Pan's Labyrinth

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Brilliant from first frame to last, Pans Labyrinth, a fancifully aesthetic, densely rich fairy tale for adults, represents the full blossoming of Mexican Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker of the first rank. Its easily the most visionary, haunting, and expressive film I saw in competition in Cannes this year. If I were a on the jury, I would have given it the Palme dOr, which instead went to Ken Loachs decent (but not great) The Wind That Shakes the Barleys.

A mid-career summation work, Pans Labyrinth raises the bar considerably for del Toro (what will he do next) as well as for the fantasy-fable genre. Before analyzing the film, Id like to say that Pans Labyrinth is a fantastical work, in both senses of this term, and one of the best films of the year.

Set against the backdrop of the fascist regime in 1944 rural Spain, Pans Labyrinth centers on Ofelia, a lonely, dreamy child living with her mother and adoptive father, a military officer. As such, Pans Labyrinth serves as a logical companion piece to del Toros period fable, The Devils Backbone, upon which it impressively expands in narrative, mythic, and visual ways.

That film, which I saw as a juror at the Locarno Film Festival, never found its audience in the U.S. when released by Sony Classics in 2002. Bear with me, this is a review of what if.If I were a distributor, I would re-release Devils Advocate on a double feature bill with Pans Labyrinth to show their thematic resemblance (or intertextuality to use a concept from film studies) as well as mark the maturation of del Torro as a director with a singular worldview.

In her loneliness, Ofelia creates a world filled with fantastical creatures and secret destinies. With post-war repression at its height, Ofelia must come to terms with the surrounding world through a fable of her own creation.

After the first Cannes screening, we critics, at once baffled and impressed by the blend or collision of reality and fantasy, tried in vain to compare the film to the work of other English-speaking (Tim Burton Terry Gilliam David Cronenberg) and foreign directors (Luis Bunuel due to the films surrealist touches and critique of fascism). The fact that we were unable to find filmic analogues suggests that Pans Labyrinth is a unique work, one with strong allusions to literature, painting, film, and music.

In del Toros films, there is no clear demarcation between reality and fantasy, since the former tends to be sensualist and surreal, and the latter both realistic and gaudy. Pans Labyrinth blends a number of seemingly contradictory concepts to an advantage. The film is a genre and a personal-auteurist statement. Its both gothic horror and fantasy. Its historically specific and politically grounded but also universal in its cinematic and mythic properties.

The film is set in a medieval compound in a primeval forest, the most prevalent of fairytales' settings, and though its 1944, the narrative and landscape are slightly anachronistic, lending a touch of mythic otherworldliness.

While the political setting is similar to that of Devils Backbone, there are some significant differences. In the new film, the protagonist is a girl rather than a boy. While del Toro again returns to the Spanish Civil War, setting the plot in a regimented isolated world, in the former picture, it was an orphanage in a godforsaken desert; here its a military outpost in the mountains. The predominant landscape, lush forest, offers visual juxtaposition with the vast and plain yellow desert.

Genre-wise, Pans Labyrinth is more a fable-fantasy than a horror yarn driven by revenge. In Devils Backbone, del Toro wove his ghost story into the Civil War setting, whereas here, the two stories are parallel and complementary. Finally, like Devils Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth also works as an allegory, though its possible to enjoy it as a purely visceral experience.

When the tale begins, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives with her sick, pregnant mother to meet her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Serg Lopez), who serves in the Franco administration. Vidal lives in a spot secluded in the Spanish countryside, where rebel soldiers still roam around. Vidal is the biological father of the baby, which he declares must be and would be a son that needs to be born close to him.

Ominous signs of a foreboding future are evident from the first handshake. When Ofelia offers Vidal the wrong hand, he reacts violently, almost breaking her arm with his firm grip. Drawing on our familiarity with such family settings, del Toro doesnt elaborate on the tangled relationships between Ofelia, her good mother, and her nasty stepfather.

Taking a walk into a labyrinth next to her house, Ofelia and slips into a world of fantasy. The split between the story's disparate realms is sharp. The new realm accentuates the disparity from Ofelia's real world, which is defined by insensitivity and cruel violence. To del Toros credit, both world are meticulously crafted and sumptuously imagined to the point where there is no need to elaborate on the tensions between them.

Ofelia discovers an ancient pagan idol and a fairy that leads her to a maze standing behind the building, a labyrinth predates Christianity. A satyr tells Ofelia that shes the lost princess of the fairy realm, assigning her three tasks to accomplish before she can return home. Ofelia must get an item at the dangerous banquet but must not eat the food, and the giant toad has to be fed a magic stone. All tasks have to be executed by the full moon, which may signal Ofelias first menstruation.

Del Toro effectively conveys the callous violence of Vidal's political dominion. The war between Vidal and the rebels takes place in a cold, mechanical setting. The woods surrounding the outpost are filled with rebels who have moles inside Vidals unit. Captain Vidal underestimates the rebels strengtha conscious allusion to Bushs and the War in Iraq The rebels harass the outpost and raid its supplies; Vidal strikes back with brutality, even when it's clear that those captured arent members of the rebels.

Vidals world has its own rigid logic, a product of fascist ideology rather than dreams. Utterly committed, Vidal believes that his cause justifies any means; hes a victim of blind obedience to a horrible ideology. Vidal executes torture sessions with cruel brutality, beating a man with a wine bottle. The cut Vidal gets on his face gives him a sinister smile that turns him into a ghoulish-looking monster.

Ofelia believes in the world of fairies and in what the satyr tells her, despite his creepy look; he has hooves for feet and horns on his head. Unlike Vidal, however, Ofelia is not blindly committed to the satyr, which proves to be her redemption and salvation.

While the fate of her mother and stepfather are preordained, Ofelias is not; shes the only character with a free will to make choices. As a young girl, Ofelia is hung between childhood and adolescence; shes told shes too old for fairy tales, yet she still finds them alluring.

The theme of duality recurs throughout the movie. The center of the labyrinth shifts from magical to non-magical elements; the rebel moles have double identities; and Vidals few honest moments all occur when he faces the looking-glass, a mirror.

Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in Hellboy) plays a dual role, as the satyr and as Pal, a horrible monster whose eyes are in his palms and legs are atrocities. In his speech, Pan relies heavily on the vosotros form, a classic touch that evokes a bygone tradition. Pans world includes strange, playful fairies, and a grotesque giant toad. The film's fantasy sequences are seductive spectacles of spiritual and cultural nuance.

The film's creatures seem to have come from the dark spots of del Toros subconscious imagination. The fantasy worlds that Ofelia visits–the huge interior of a tree, or a castle with a dining room set for a dangerous banquet–are not too removed from the reality of the outpost.

You couldnt tell from del Toros American movies (Blade II, Hellboy), but you could infer from his Mexican ones (Cronos) that he is not just a great visual artist but also a consummate storyteller. Intellectually and emotionally, Pans Labyrinth is del Toros most resonant film to date. The film exudes a chilly vision that nonetheless masks a warm spiritual center.

A film of breathtaking visual splendor, Pans Labyrinth should be experienced as viscerally as possibleon a big screen, in the dark, collectively. Watching Pans Labyrinth reaffirms our sense in the possibilities of film as a medium, the wonder of a darkly beautiful fantasy thats vividly realized.

The movie offers the excitement of watching a filmmaker, who rightfully assumes his place alongside other masters of world cinema. The bar has been raised not just for del Toro, but also for other directors (Peter Jackson and Tim Burton included) working in the fantasy genre.