Pan's Labyrinth - Review

by Wardog

Wardog doesn't so much review as celebrate Pan's Labyrinth. Spoilers within. Adverbs proliferate beyond control.
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The first thing you should know about this movie is that it's not what you're expecting, and the second is you should go and see it. It's billing as "an adult fairytale" in no way does it justice, implying as it does some Gaimanesque shit about the essential darkness of fairytales and various scenes of the fantastical and the real colliding. Neither a war movie, a horror movie, a fairytale or a fantasy, this is quite simply a fascinating, moving, beautiful, wonderful film that defies genre, categorisation and cliche and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Set in 1944, after Franco's victory, the pregnant Carmen (Adriana Gil) travels with her young daughter, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), deep into heart of rural Northern Spain to live with her second husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) who is hunting a group of rebels hiding in the wood surrounding his estate/military base. Ofelia is led by fairies into the labyrinth at the edge of the estate where she meets a faun (Doug Jones) who hails her as the lost princess of a magical kingdom. In order to reclaim her throne, the faun sets her three tasks to perform while her mother's pregnancy grows increasingly complicated and the plight of the rebels in the woods becomes ever more desperate.

This film is adverb-inspiringly superb in every way: Ofelia's kingdom, and its denizens, are gorgeously realised, and the everyday world is equally vivid and harshly real. The acting is uniformly excellent, Sergi Lopez managing to bring a great deal of subtlety and menace to the role of the Evil Fascist, who spends most of his on-screen time beating people to death with broken bottles, polishing his shiny black boots and chasing little girls through labyrinths. Even the score which is normally the last thing I notice about a movie, if at all is heartbreakingly haunting. It should be noted, however, that the film is nasty; the violence, although never gratuitous, is graphic and I spent a significant portion of the film watching from between my fingers. But then episodes of Supernatural scare me so I'm probably nowhere near average on the wimp-scale.

Onwards to spoilerville!

One of the most difficult aspects of the film is the juxtaposition of the real and fantastic elements. Because the disjunction between them is maintained almost to the end of the film and the fantasy sequences are presented as lavish set-pieces against the driving action of the real world it is hard to reconcile them. But, of course, we're not meant to. A brief glance at the internet has thrown up interminable debates about whether Ofelia's magic world is "real" and does she finally get there these seem to me to be irrelevant questions. Myths, fairytales and folktales on their most basic level have always been mechanisms for understanding the world, and Ofelia's is no different Her fantasy world is informed by, and a reflection of, the real world, growing in darkness and complexity as Ofelia begins to notice and struggles to comprehend the horrors that surround her. And, one in the eye for people who keep thrusting down our throats the notion that fairytales are dark, man dark (*cough* Gaiman *cough*), no matter how dark and dirty Ofelia's world may be it will always be preferable to the horrors of the real world in which the only real hope of redemption and escape is death, and the only victories can be small and personal ones. Although the rebels celebrate their "victory" in the end sequence, they have still ultimately lost the war. And Franco will dominate Spain's political landscape for the next thirty years or more. As Pedro, the rebel leader says, all they can do is "make it harder for them."

Ofelia's world mirrors her growing understanding and fear of reality, and symbols and images echo through them both. The three tasks that Ofelia is set grow increasingly unpleasant. In the first, she must kill a toad that lurks beneath an ancient tree. She is told that the toad is slowly destroying the tree, just as fascism and Franco are slowly destroying Spain. But her conception is still quite childish she is vaguely aware of "something bad" at the root of the world. In the second task, evil has a face and form: The Pale Man. With blood on his hands and his association with luxury and opulence, as Libellum has pointed out he is a representation of Vidal, who shoots without thought and holds dinner parties while the peasants scrape by on limited rations. Evil is now something inescapable and eternal that we must not wake up. Although she has been warned not to eat or drink any of the food in The Pale Man's hall, she eats two grapes, thinking nobody will notice her small rebellion, just as the rebels steal food from Vidal. And, in the third task, Ofelia must spill innocent blood to take her place in her kingdom. Evil, now, is a potential within us all. It cannot be fought or killed or put to sleep, it can only be denied. As the Doctor says: "Some people do not blindly follow orders and just do what they are told, without questioning the order, that's what makes me different to you." The rebels know their fight is futile, but they continue to struggle anyway.

Despite its grim reality, fairytale motifs and images proliferate through the real world too. Keys and knives become iconic, almost magical. The fight between the rebels and the fascists is a straightforward good versus evil struggle. They rebels are hiding in the woods, where heroes and heroines have traditionally always fled and found succour from the forces of darkness. Vidal is Ofelia's wicked stepfather, and he is obsessed with passing his kingdom his watch, his father's legacy to his son. Ofelia drugs him with laudanum as she makes his escape: a magic potion. He sets the stammering rebel he has captured a fairytale challenge with a fairytale promise of freedom before he tortures him. And, as the movie progress, Vidal's immaculate appearance becomes increasingly dishevelled, scarred and bloody as if to outwardly reflect his inner monstrosity.

The message of the film is intensely personal, the flashes of hope and redemption equally so. The victory for the rebels is the rescue of Vidal's son (I won't spoil that scene, but it's deeply, deeply satisfying); it will not change the outcome of the war or ease the burden of the future but for that one child, snatched from the arms of evil itself, it will make all the difference. As for Ofelia, whether she lives or dies is irrelevant, the final scene shows her fairy tale world stripped of the dark shadows of reality, golden and resplendent. And her kingdom is no larger or grander or more magical than any child's kingdom: it's a world of safety in which her parents are waiting.

And I cried like a fool all the way home.
Themes: TV & Movies
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