Rated: R for graphic violence and some language Reviewed by: Frankand Jim (see below) Release date: December 29, 2006 Released by: Picturehouse Studios
The fascist regime of generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1944 is the backdrop for Pan's Labyrinth a gothic fairy tale seen through the eyes of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who is forced to live in the house of her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Vidal is the symbol of the fascist militant brutality which circles around the little girl's life.
Her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is pregnant with Vidal's child and is constantly apologetic to Ofelia for her husband's behavior which is as carelesly brutal as any we have seen. He smashes a man to death with a hammer and then shoots a second because they may be anti fascist. When he discovers the two men are simple farmers he shrugs off their murder and swaggers back to his headquarters. The atmosphere around Vidal creates great tension both with his troops and particularly in his home with his wife and young Ofelia.
Ofelia lives in her world of reading, particularly her books of fairy tales which she holds close - it is the world in her head far from the violent real world. Ofelia travels through the window in the books which are full of mysteries and adventures. While on the road to her new home she follows a dragonfly which emits attracting sounds and leads the little girl into the woods as her introduction to a new domain. When she questions the dragon fly because it does not look like the fairy in her book it morphs into a Tinkerbell look-a-like. That begins the dark place she will travel to for relief from her reality.
Early on a princess from the past is shown losing her life and we are told she will return someday to the King and Queen living in the body of another young woman. It is quickly obvious than Ofelia has the princess (at least in sprit) within her. To reach back to the King and Queen, Ofelia must travel through the Labyrinth and deal with a creature that looks far more frightening than Captain Vidal, but who exists to test her determination. Giving her tools such as chalk which can create portholes or doorways in rock and walls when it is necessary for Ofelia to escape dangerous situations he makes demands and offers a sanctuary.
Resistance fighters fill the nearby mountains and Vidal and his troops constantly pursue all signs of the rebels, but the insurgents have eluded capture. Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is a housekeeper who shows Ofelia the neglected garden near the mill which has beauty but can be a place to be lost in after dark. But that is the dark refuge where Ofelia goes to hide from sorrow and loneliness when her mother who is experiencing a difficult pregnancy is not available for her.
Ofelia must deal with monsters of the mind and the true monsters in her life which are lead by her sick brutal stepfather. The story of the Labyrinth can easily be imagined as the place where children in the Franco era mentally hid. Perhaps it speaks to a longing for the return of the monarchy, but it reflects the dark side of fairy tales as well as the comfort they can bring.
Beautifully directed by Guillermo del Toro and filmed by Guillermo Navarro Pan's Labyrinth is compelling both for the implications of the story, and the beauty of the locations, sets and performances. We cannot help but feel protective toward Ofelia yet fascinated as she leads us toward more intriguing adventure in each scene. This is the best foreign language film of the season.
If there's a child-like movie definitely suited for adults it's Pan's Labyrinth, a mesmerizing odyssey involving fantasy and war. Mature kids could find unexpected pleasure here, even through the grim and excesses, but Guillermo del Toro's new excursion isn't one for younger audiences.
A sense of the times is felt in 1944 Spain in a rebel-like remote sanctuary. The young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) goes there with her mother (Ariadna Gil). It's the place where here stepfather, a bestial Sergi Lopez (With a Friend Like Harry) is captain of a military outpost.
While her mother is very pregnant as well as ill, Ofelia explores the environment to find an ancient stone labyrinth. Inside is the eerie faun Pan (Doug Jones). Pan informs her that she happens to be a long-lost princess. She can attain her power once again if three perilous tasks are met. The screenplay also takes into account that Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), her stepdad's maid, is a secret rebel aide.
For those who know del Toro's accomplished stylings (see The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy), the narrative dichotomy is woven together with much clarity. The viewer experience includes a radiant production from the bright lensing that accentuates the sounds of the forest as leaves fall from their branches. Especially from Ofelia's standpoint, the character detail is really evident as the experience has a magical realism to it. Perhaps a darker fairy tale variation on "Alice in Wonderland."
The imagination in Pan's Labyrinth is integrated with the fantasy in the most elegant of ways. The exquisite editing invites one into creepy interludes including the military to an inviting banquet where an eyeless man (Jones also) dwells. There is a big muddy frog.
Baquero is full-bodied as the girl going to new places, relating fantastical tales to her unborn brother, and Lopez very good as the hard-boiled father.
Maybe a little over-the-top in the terror department Pan's Labyrinth always resonates as a fable with a visceral authenticity to it that doesn't forget the horrors of real life as freaky that the otherworld can be with all of the guns, bugs, and needles.