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Film: Pan's Labyrinth

Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro
Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro
In Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), the new film from Mexican-born director Guillermo del Toro, fairy tales are terrifying. This is how fairy tales are supposed to be, coded ways of telling children about the harsh realities of adult life. As the goal of American parenting has become shielding children from reality, as if it did not exist, fairy tales have been watered down and made less frightening. In the case of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl obsessed with fairy tales, her imagination is only as fraught with danger and terror as her life. Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), has lost her husband during the Spanish Civil War. After remarrying a sadistic Fascist officer, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), whose baby she is carrying, she takes Ofelia to stay with her new husband in the mountains.

Capitán Vidal, with the smug approval of the Spanish Church (represented by a priest who comes to dinner at Vidal's house), is trying to root out the last remnants of the Republican opposition. His methods are ruthless, torture sessions and summary executions that del Toro shows in graphic detail (making this movie emphatically not for children or the squeamish). Ofelia understands that she and her mother are in Capitán Vidal's power, remaining safe mostly because he is obsessed with the son he believes Carmen is about to bear. When it becomes clear that the pregnancy is a grave threat to his new wife's health, Vidal orders her doctor to save the child at all costs, even Carmen's life. The only person who can help Ofelia is Vidal's housekeeper, Mercedes (a pretty and fastidious Maribel Verdú), a local woman taking many risks to help the Republican fugitives. She becomes a sort of fairy godmother.

Still from Pan's Labryrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro
With this life as background, it is hardly surprising that Ofelia retreats into a dream world, in which she is a princess, the lost daughter of the king and queen of another world. When she arrives at her stepfather's house, she discovers the labyrinth, a mysterious stone structure overgrown with weeds. Guided by insect-like fairies and a creepy faun (Doug Jones, with digital assistance), she follows instructions in a magic book, leading her through quests that will help her return to her real home. One can recognize in fairy tales the psychological terrors and desires of children, and Pan's Labyrinth is no different. Approaching an ancient tree (shaped remarkably like a uterus with branches like fallopian tubes), Ofelia passes through a vaginal slit, slithering in mud and insects, to kill a toad nesting inside that threatens to kill its host (much like the baby in Ofelia's mother's womb). In another quest, she enters the creepy home of a horrible baby-eating creature, with eyes in its palms (also Doug Jones). The creature sits at the head of a table laden with a feast, just as Capitán Vidal does (his ravenous desire for a son is matched by his jealous control of the supplies sent by the government).

Del Toro has guided his actors through fine performances. Ivana Baquero, who was ten years old at the time the film was shot, is a vision of innocent beauty, but with the awareness of a girl on the brink of adulthood. Sergi López is an impervious paragon of cruelty as the Fascist officer, an unpredictable sadist capable of inflicting horrible pain, even on himself, and as tightly wired as the watch he obsessively tries to repair throughout the film. Fine supporting work comes from Álex Angulo as the good-hearted Dr. Ferreiro, who does the best he can to heal the wounds caused by his employer.

Other Reviews:
A. O. Scott | Ann Hornaday | Anthony Lane | Rotten Tomatoes | Le Monde

The risk of relying so extensively on special effects is that the fantastic half of the plot may not join with the realistic to form a coherent story, a challenge del Toro has overcome. The murky world of the house and forests, shot with loamy darkness by Guillermo Navarro, del Toro's frequent collaborator as Director of Photography, is a place already between worlds, where one can easily imagine ancient horrors lurk. If anything, the viewer, like Ofelia, hopes for the appearance of the imagined world, as a way to escape a desperate reality. Del Toro once owned his own special effects company, and in Pan's Labyrinth the effects work because they are integrated into the story in as natural a way as possible.

Guillermo del Toro and Doug Jones as the Faun, on the set of Pan's Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro and Doug Jones as the Faun, on the set of Pan's Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro has a made a name with American audiences for horror and adventure films, projects written by other people. In Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro has returned to directing his own screenplay, as in El Espinazo del diablo (2001). That film, also a fantasy set in the Spanish Civil War, is in many ways the lesser twin of Pan's Labyrinth. My first experience with del Toro's work was a creepy variation on the vampire legend, Cronos, which was also a del Toro screenplay. In this new film, del Toro has surpassed his previous efforts, both in the sheer visual beauty (cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, del Toro's frequent collaborator), extensive and hyper-realistic special effects, and a well-etched story that grips the viewer. It will be a hard choice for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, for which Pan's Labyrinth will almost certainly be nominated. My vote will probably still go to Volver in that category.

Pan's Labyrinth has been leaving film critics speechless ever since its wildly successful screening at last May's Cannes Film Festival. In the Post, Ann Hornaday wrote of the film with reverent praise, and the vast majority of all reviews are overwhelmingly positive (97% approval at Rotten Tomatoes). None of the movie's dazzling special effects would make any impression if the viewer were not interested in the character of Ofelia or did not believe in the fragility of her situation in life. We want Ofelia to escape because we like her, and ultimately we do not care if her fantasy is real or imagined. In a brilliant way, Del Toro leaves that and many other questions unresolved.

Now screening at E Street Cinema and other theaters in the Washington area.

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