Up until now, it’s been relatively easy to dismiss Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. Oh, he’s just a glorified genre director, some might say, pointing to his initial forays into fear with such works as Cronos and Mimic. Others look directly to his comic book efforts, from the only decent installment in the Blade series (#2) to his magnificent makeover of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and deny his inherent ability. Even his defiant history lesson from 2001, Espinazo del Diablo, El (The Devil’s Backbone) is viewed as more of a ghost story than a grand artistic statement.
But with the release of Laberinto del Fauno, El (Pan’s Labyrinth) and the surrounding critical clamor, Del Toro is finally finding the respect that his films have long mandated. And there’s a good reason for all the accolades. Without modifying his cinematic approach, and staying true to his vibrant vision of a world constantly weakened by elements both fantastical and fatal, this fascinating fable of a little girl’s hellish existence amongst the Post-war Fascists of Franco’s Spain is simply stunning. It’s a testament to human will and the power of the mind to make substitutes and sacrifices for the horrors all around us.
When we first meet Ofelia, our world-weary juvenile heroine, we immediately see the toll this national uprising has taken on its people. It is written all across her wrinkled brow. She’s a tired child, her face formed into an almost constant state of sorrow. In her hands she carries several books, her only escape from an existence without security, without love, and most recently, without a father. All of these factors will play an important part in Del Toro’s designs. He will take this innocent’s fears, amplify them via an alternative narrative based in classic Brother’s Grimm-like fairytales, and create a kind of commentary on the harsh realities of life during wartime.
Moving from the city to the country, Ofelia is at the whim of her situation. Upon arrival, she meets a friendly face in Mercedes, one of the few adults who actually considers Ofelia more than merely an under-aged nuisance. At this point, we expect the movie to be a kind of indirect parent and child partnership, a desperate rebel sympathizer and an impressionable kid trying to stay safe inside a realm of deception, despair and death. Ofelia’s actual mother is pregnant, the suggestion being that she sold out her husband and carried on with the corrupt Captain Vidal, resulting in the spouse’s death and her current delicate condition. Indeed, the subsequent marriage and move to a more secure rural location is killing her, making Ofelia even more fearful of her status.
Within this setting, Del Toro then subverts the story. Instead of focusing solely on Mercedes and Ofelia, both characters take off in different directions. As the maid with radical motives helps the freedom fighters in the hills, Ofelia explores the garden maze just off the primary path to the Captain’s headquarters. There, she finds the fairies of her books, and an earthen spiral staircase that leads to the realm of the title faun - a half man, half beast who holds the keys to the child’s chance of survival. He will provide her with three challenges, each one testing a specific mantle. If she passes each one, there’s a promise of passage into a realm of happiness and hope.
It’s here inside this rather complicated set-up, battles with fantastic creatures juxtaposed against real life combat, the gaining of magical objects and powers presented alongside the spilling of actual blood, where the movie finds its focus. But surprisingly enough, Del Toro is not trying to spin a simultaneous allegory – Ofelia’s trials vs. those of Spain in general. No, in each one of the little girl’s tests, choice is a key component. In essence, Del Toro is attempting to describe and define conviction, to show how opportunity meshed with option creates decisiveness, and with it, purpose and assurance. Indeed, Ofelia’s adventures are all about defiance and discovery, centering on confrontation with hope the ultimate prize.
Take her journey into the lair of the Pale Man. She has been warned by the faun Pan not to eat or drink anything found on the disturbing figure’s table. She is to pursue her goal and nothing else. Yet the little girl, given over to feelings of being left out and ignored, can’t refuse the inviting items spread out along this baneful banquet. She makes a minor decision, one she thought was meaningless since it was so insignificant in the grand scheme of her quest. Yet the repercussions are truly terrifying, and the long term ramifications lead to one of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s most important points. Del Toro is showing how one small decision can snowball into a life or death disaster – and how we never consider the consequences at the time we make the choice.
A lot of Pan’s Labyrinth plays on such subtexts. When we learn that the house doctor is also a rebel sympathizer, that Captain Vidal is a tripwire psychopath that can kill a man as easily as he can order a meal, that an unborn child can become a bargaining chip in the ongoing clash between people and politics, we recognize the director’s complicated designs. He is showing us how most people parlay their everyday existence into a series of conflicts and compromises, living with the judgments they make and suffering in silence with the secret strategies they find important. By giving us the little girl’s learning curve, and placing it alongside people who have already discovered these lessons, Del Toro is piecing together his own puzzle – and the images it shows are unsettling indeed.
There will be those put off by the brutality of Franco’s soldiers, their mindless destruction of their fellow Spaniards all in the name of “winning and losing”. Vidal even states that the reason behind the genocide is really just a matter of supporting the proper position. “They just don’t recognize who won” he says, and he wants to make sure that the individuals plotting their resistance pay the price for such ignorance. Unlike The Devil’s Backbone, which was more supernatural in its tone, Pan’s Labyrinth is a bloodier, more visceral experience. While not obsessed with gore, Del Toro does not shy away from the grotesque that accompanies hostilities. Torture is not downplayed – its physically corrupting consequences are shown in sickening, shocking realism.
But it’s the fantasy facets that really astonish us. Bringing an unbridled imagination to the movie’s main setpieces, Del Toro delivers amazingly memorable entities, from the insect like fairies to the giant toad who holds a magic key in its mucus-lined mouth. Pan himself is a combination of the seductive and the sinister. We can never truly decipher his motives, and there are moments when we wonder if he too is manipulating Ofelia for some other ominous purpose. From a purely visual standpoint, Pan’s Labyrinth stands alongside the works of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam for unbelievable optical flair, and just like these amazing auteurs, Del Toro’s incorporation of such material is seamless. We never once doubt that what we see is being experienced by Ofelia, or the other characters in the film.
With its flawless performances, amazing combination of exquisiteness and cruelty, and careful narrative construction that builds to one of the more superb endings in recent memory, Guillermo Del Toro has finally delivered his mainstream missive, a film that argues so effectively for his abilities that it can’t be easily dismissed as the ravings of a horror nut or a superhero scenarist’s filmic fluke. No, when the history of foreign film is finally written, Del Toro and his fellow Mexican filmmakers (Alfonso Cuoran, Alejandro Iñárritu) will argue that, in 2007, they illustrated that, as a language, cinema is both international and insular, a product of both the artform and the individual working within it. And no one has more inner demons to deal with and defend than fantasy’s new agent provocateur.