Today is my birthday, and, as is tradition, I want to revisit one of my favorite movies of all time: Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. I specifically chose this movie because, other than having casually rewatched most of the director’s filmography in the last week, his next movie (The Shape of Water) will premiere at the 74th Venice Film Festival, and I am definitely going to watch it.
The story takes place in Spain in May–June 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War, during the early Francoist period. The narrative intertwines this real world with a mythical world centered on an overgrown abandoned labyrinth and a mysterious faun creature, with whom the main character, Ofelia, interacts. Ofelia’s stepfather, the Falangist Captain Vidal, hunts the Spanish Maquis who fight against the Francoist regime in the region, while Ofelia’s pregnant mother Carmen grows increasingly ill.
I consider Guillermo del Toro to be in my top 5 favorite directors working today. There are many reasons for that, but one quote from him is enough to show why I love him so much:
“I see horror as part of legitimate film. I don’t see it as an independent genre that has nothing to do with the rest of cinema.”
That is an argument that I have made very often, and it is true for each one of his movies: while they always flirt with horror elements, they are always about telling a story rather than being downright scary, yet they are more eerie than 90% of “real” horror movies.
A common theme in del Toro’s films is what the nature of evil: while we might be scared more about ghosts (Crimson Peak, The Devil’s Backbone) or vampires (Cronos, The Strain), humans are actually the most cruel and dangerous individuals. In Pan’s Labyrinth there are some truly memorable monsters, but the one that is the most disturbing and terrifying is the very human Captain Vidal (portrayed to perfection by Sergi López): he is the embodiment of fascist ideals of the era, and his ideals and psychotic persona are shown from the very beginning. And I want to focus on that word: shown. Even though the dialogue is truly beautiful, I adore how none of the psychology of the characters is explained, instead giving the actors the chance to shine by portraying different emotions and actions under various circumstances. Every character feels fleshed out, yet there is barely any exposition.
Our heroine, Ofelia (played by the 10yo Ivana Baquero), is one of the most compelling young characters ever portrayed on film: she is a pure child forced to live in the countryside surrounded by an ill pregnant mother, a murderous step father, and hundreds of soldiers. The quest that the faun gives her is a way to cope with all the violence and turmoil of the world she is living in, a literal escape to a magical world that is not as colorful or happy as one might imagine. Closely related to Ofelia’s story is the one of Mercedes (Y Tu Mamá También’s Maribel Verdú), Vidal’s housekeeper who is secretly helping the revolutionaries: she is a very strong character who has strong moments of weakness, compassion, and willpower.
We cannot forget about the main draw of the film: the fantastical elements. While there aren’t many monsters and creatures in this film, those that are present are truly iconic. The Faun, played by Doug Jones and voiced by Pablo Adán, is not all that different from a pedophile: tall, slender, constantly grinning, with a deceivingly welcoming tone. The makeup and effects, blended with Jones’ performance, bring to life a truly unique character that you are both attracted and repulsed by. Jones also portrays the Pale Man, a creature that has to be seen to be believed, and at the center of one of the tensest scenes of the film.
Guillermo del Toro has always been against authoritarianism and institutions, for they oppress the freedom of individuals and often reject different ways of thinking. There is nothing more oppressive than a fascist regime (especially Franco’s), and there is a strong juxtaposition between the characters of Vidal and Ofelia: the former is quite rigid, always looking at his clock (which both represents the strictness of time, and his father’s courage that overshadows his every move), listening to the same music every morning whenever he shaves, pretending that others do not question his orders; the latter is a child, free spirited, still fascinated by a fantastical world, and as a child she is very disobedient. It is this very act (going against the rule, what you were ordered to do) that is key to this movie: all the three trials that Ofelia faces have strict rules or orders that she always refuses to follow, not out of smugness, but of wits and goodness. Some rules are set for our wellbeing, but some are not necessarily all that good, and we, as humans who are free to choose what they want to do, have the right to make the decision that we think is the best one. If you have seen the movie, I will just say that that one scene with Doctor Ferreiro, and his quote, always hit me strong in the heart.
Technically, the film is truly impeccable: minus some slightly outdated CGI (which is very few and far between), the Academy Award winning production design, cinematography, and makeup are truly perfect, immersing you into a world that walks the line between reality and fantasy, switching and blending them at a moment’s notice. The music and theme by Javier Navarrete is memorable, and at least once a week I randomly start hearing the lullaby inside my head, and it goes away only after I have listened to the entire closing credits: it is a tender score, melancholic, sad, and hopeful.
Overall, Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s undisputed masterpiece: with a strong emotional story, well-rounded characters, believable acting, strong use of violence and horror elements, a wonderful soundtrack, flawless makeup and effects, this is a fantasy war drama for the ages. An hymn to individualism, family, and the power of storytelling. In simpler words: perfect.
Visual Effects: 9
Violence & Gore: 9
Sex & Nudity: 2
Drugs & Profanity: 4
Intensity & Horror: 8