Once upon a time long, long ago, fairytales were more than just imaginative flights of fancy. They weren’t cutesy or cuddly, aligned with strategic marketing to create excellent cross promotion and/or marketing advantages. No, back when they were first formed, they had more in common with our current urban legends than they did with wish fulfillment, ego integrity and lessons about sharing. If they were anything, a fairytale was a parable, a clear cautionary example of avoiding certain situations (traveling in the woods alone) and individuals (kindly old ladies bearing fruit) wrapped up in lots of prosaic pomp and circumstance. They also stood as a manner of social redistribution, a chance for the commoner to laugh at the crown or sneer at the wealthy and privileged. Today, all that’s gone. In its place are PC platitudes and non-violent positivity.
Thank God then for Mexican maverick Guillermo Del Toro. If ever there should be a Latino Peter Jackson, it is this amazing moviemaker. Responsible for fascinating films in several genres – horror (Cronos, Mimic), action (Blade II, Hellboy) and drama (The Devil’s Backbone) – he’s perhaps the most underappreciated auteur working along the fringes of mainstream moviemaking today. It’s not that audiences and/or critics fail to see his genius, it’s just that many of the inventive masterpieces he creates tend to test the limits of legitimate popularity. With the arrival of his most recent effort, the spectacular El Laberinto del fauno (literally translated as The Labyrinth of the Faun – otherwise known as Pan’s Labyrinth – new to DVD from New Line), it appears his moment has finally arrived. Though some would argue that Del Toro was always a recognized artist, it took something like this imaginative adult fable to finally secure his status as a significant cinematic sage.
Proposed as the middle movement of an indirect Spanish Civil War trilogy (of which Backbone becomes Part One), Pan’s Labyrinth tells the tale of two desperate women – the frail and fragile Ofelia Vidal, and her seemingly sick mother. Turns out, Carmen Vidal is having complications with her recent pregnancy, the result of a liaison (and eventual marriage) to a Fascist, Captain Vidal. Forcibly moved from the city to his countryside headquarters, our military man is looking forward to the day when he will have a son to carry on his lineage. This makes Ofelia emotionally (and practically) unimportant, and the little girl looses herself in the many books of fairytales she carries with her. Luckily, the housekeeper Mercedes takes a shine to our heroine, and its not long before Ofelia learns her secret – along with the in-house doctor, she is helping the rebels in their battle against the Captain.
At this point, Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t look like your typical fantasy film, and it’s something Del Toro acknowledges over and over again. In the enlightening commentary track that accompanies the two disc special edition, the director makes it very clear that he is not out to make eye candy. “These images are meant as eye protein!” he proclaims, stating that everything in the film is to be taken literally, figuratively, symbolically and seriously. It’s a great line, but it doesn’t diminish the impact of what he’s attempting. All throughout the DVD’s highlight reels, galleries and documentaries, we see a man obsessed, feverishly working on how to bring the ideas locked in his head (and eventually drawn out in elaborate sketches and storyboards) out onto film.
The result is simply stunning. From the moment Ofelia ‘discovers’ her woodland guide into the Faun’s spiraling subterranean lair (an apparent metaphor for the child’s desire to escape her horrid surroundings), we witness the kind of vital visual splendor that has long gone missing from most Hollywood productions. Thanks to a reliance on practical effects (make-up, costuming, puppetry) and Del Toro’s wonderful combination of the sinister with the sublime, the whimsical elements become deep, and rather disconcerting. Like the Brothers Grimm before him, this is a filmmaker who wants to give fairytales back their teeth. When Ofelia learns that she must complete three tasks to regain her crown as a Princess of Pan’s underground kingdom, Del Toro makes their achievement a true test of movie macabre nerves.
These quests, coming at the center of the story, are meant to symbolize the internal struggles that any young person must face when confronted by the grown-up world. Indeed, Del Toro argues that what Ofelia is facing in each one of her challenges is the temptation of choice, and the confidence to decide direction for oneself. Courage is a key element in Pan’s Labyrinth‘s narrative themes. We are supposed to see self-sacrifice and bravery parallel and surpass the brutal, bullying tactics of the Fascists, resulting in a realization of what truly matters in a time of war. Take the relationship between Carmen and her daughter. Here is a woman willing to literally sleep with the enemy to preserve her position in life, while she recognizes instinctively that her charmed child is no longer important. In order to survive, she must have the Captain’s son – and it’s a price she’s willing to pay with her own expiring existence.
Similarly, Mercedes and Dr. Ferreiro form an internal set of ghosts haunting this military machine. As the harried servant, Mercedes is trying to balance the needs of the Resistance (which her brother bravely fights for) with her own clandestine efforts to remain undetected and undeterred. She knows that death is around every corner in this well secured home, and all it takes is the wrong move, or trusting the wrong person, to uncover her treason. It’s the same with our shaggy dog doctor. Since his role is more important in the Captain’s eyes (he is keeping Carmen alive – at least long enough to save the baby), his is the easier deceit. In fact, the physician is so brazen in his behavior that it’s not a question of how he gets caught, but when. Together, they understand their part in the paradigm. If they only protect themselves, others (and maybe the country itself) will be destroyed. But by slowly subverting matters from their position, no matter the personal consequence, they can save those they care about.
In the end, however, it all comes down to Ofelia. She is the most important emblematic element in Del Toro’s struggle to fit the terrors of reality into a world awash in giant toads, sly satyrs, and the vile, vacant Pale Man. This character, a shriveled old effigy that can only see by placing eyeballs in the palms of his long-fingered hands, stands as Pan’s Labyrinth‘s most important visual element. As the director discusses in the DVD’s bonus material, here is a figure surrounded by opulence and luxury (the fiend’s banquet table is overrun with succulent food) and yet all it can think about is the murderous desire to kill children. It engulfs and floods it, forcing it into a state of immobility and literal blindness. Adding to the allegorical nature of the creature is its surroundings. Resembling the Captain’s own dining room, even matching it in style and design, Del Toro wants to make it crystal clear – power compels the enfeebled to feel invincible. And under such psychological strategies, the most horrifying of atrocities can occur.
It is therefore up to the innocent to show us the way. During the last act aspects of Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro continuously merges the mundane with the magical, twisting the two until we can no longer separate between them. One of the secrets spilled on the Special Edition is that our filmmaker believes in all the fantastical elements of the narrative. They are supposed to exist, not simply function as facets of Ofelia’s crumbling grasp on reality. Similar to the ghost child in The Devil’s Backbone that helps an orphanage defeat an insurgent foe, Pan and his collection of fairies are destined to destroy the efforts of the Fascists. Even when things take a turn toward the foul and fatal, it is the magic that remains constant. Its goal is clear – help Ofelia return to a land of bliss, to a place where there is no war, there is no suffering, and there is no sacrifice.
So, we’re really not supposed to grieve in the end. Whatever happens demands celebration, not sadness. Whether it’s real, merely a figment in a small child’s mind, or a confusing combination of the two that tells us something incredibly heartbreaking about the world, Pan’s Labyrinth retains its artistry and its urgency. As a film, it flowers over multiple viewings, exposing layers unrealized in previous visits. It sinks deep into your soul and surprises you with its bravery and warmth. As harsh as it is human, filmmaking doesn’t get any more enlightened than this. It resembles what it must have felt like when readers first found the tale of the Little Match Girl, or experienced the brittle majesty of the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Back then, fairytales were more than just magic. Film is better for Guillermo Del Toro feeling exactly the same way.