Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.
Within the first 20-25 minutes of El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), we have seen a fairy, met the faun of the title, and have seen two men murdered in cold blood, one by being brutally smashed in the face with a wine bottle by the commandant of a military camp. In each case, we are shown the main themes of Guillermo del Toro’s film. The fairy is not a cute critter from a Disney film. The faun is no benign beast of the forest. The commandant (Sergi Lopez) is a true monster in human form.
Few directors are able to blend the idea of the fantastic with the terrible world of the real as well as del Toro. It’s familiar ground for him--Hellboy and particularly The Devil’s Backbone walk these same avenues, but both of those films have a very different vision than this one. The release of this film put del Toro on the map in many ways, particularly for the art house crowd. There’s a reason for that—this film is in many ways the highest realization of del Toro’s personal vision.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are traveling through the Spanish countryside at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. The mother has married the commandant of a fascist camp (mentioned above). He is a man of uncommon cruelty, which does not bode well for Ofelia, who is a girl of fairy tale sensibilities. Near the camp Ofelia discovers a stone labyrinth. Soon, she begins to see fairies, and an evening trip into the labyrinth brings her face to face with the unnamed faun of the title (played by del Toro favorite Doug Jones, voiced by Pablo Adan). The faun tells Ofelia that she is the reincarnation of a fairy princess named Moanna, and to reclaim her position in the world below, she must complete a trio of tasks.
Meanwhile, up in the forest around the fascist camp, the remaining communist rebels are slowly dying off, but are aided by a sympathetic doctor (Alex Angulo) and the sister of one of the rebels, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who also happens to be the main servant of the commandant. It is through her connections and her access to the fascist camp that the rebels get food and medicine.
While the commandant attempts to maintain control of the area around his camp, Mercedes works to thwart him as much as possible, and Ofelia’s mother slowly succumbs to a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia learns of her three tasks needed to send her back to the world of the fairies.
While this is not a difficult film to write about, it’s one that I’d rather not go into significant detail on, simply because of how truly special it is. There are few films that create the sort of atmosphere that El Laberinto del Fauno manages, a blend of a real, terrible world and a world of fantasy that is in many ways just as terrible. This world of the faun holds dangers and duplicity, and Ofelia/Moanna never really knows where she stands or how to do the things she is told to do.
This is one of the great strengths of the film. The world of fantasy here is one that is of singular beauty and detail, but there are creatures here of terrible power and evil. The faun himself is a trickster character, specifically untrustworthy from the first, but he is not close to the scariest thing around. That is the Pale Man (also played by Doug Jones), a nightmare creature far more terrifying than the majority of movie boogeymen. The genius of del Toro, though, is that as frightening as the child-eating Pale Man is, the commandant of the camp is far more terrible and cruel, if only because he chooses cruelty rather than being forced into it by his nature. This is an important theme in del Toro’s work—for him, humanity is always more awful than the creatures, which might be destructive or rampant. It is people, though, that are capable of the greatest evil. It’s an idea that appears in almost everything he does.
El Laberinto del Fauno is in many ways the film that put Guillermo del Toro on the map as a truly visionary director, as someone to watch. The reason for that is not particularly the story, as good as it is, but the truly amazing visual moments. Creatures like the faun and the Pale Man are so marvelously detailed and realized that the only reaction to them is to simply sit in wonder at them. That he also has a compelling story around them, and fully realized characters simply adds to the strength of this film.
Let’s return to what I mentioned at the start. In that brutal twin killing, we see the commandant question a couple of men who he suspects of being communists. The men are farmers from the area who had been out hunting rabbits. Tired of listening to one of them, the commandant pulls a wine bottle from the man’s satchel and smashes it into his face over and over until there is no face left. It’s brutal, shocking, and sadistic, and in those few moments, we learn everything we need to know about this man. While terribly violent, this is not gratuitous, but entirely necessary, yet another indication of del Toro’s skill as a writer and director.
There are a few other moments that will be difficult for the squeamish. There’s some blood, a giant vomiting frog, a few moments of torture, an amputation, and the most disturbing knife wound and suturing I’ve seen in a long time. Don’t let this bother you. Know that it’s there for a reason.
As for the fantasy, the film leaves it open-ended as to whether or not Ofelia is truly experiencing this other world. It’s up to us to choose if she is merely a girl with a vivid imagination or truly the new incarnation of Princess Moanna. You can choose for yourself—I choose to believe in her fairy tale.
El Laberinto del Fauno is not my favorite del Toro film (El Espinazo del Diablo is), but it is in many ways his most fully realized, most visionary, and most beautiful.
Why to watch El Laberinto del Fauno: It is a near-perfect fantasy, a fairy tale for real.
Why not to watch: Those with tender tummies will find some parts quite awful.