Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Doug Jones, Maribel Verdu
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Category: IIB (Spanish)
Pan's Labyrinth begins with several black Bentleys travelling through rural Spain in 1944, a convoy carrying a woman and her daughter to an outpost where the former's soldier-husband is stationed. Inside, a heavily pregnant Carmen reproaches the young Ofelia's choice of reading, taking a heavy volume from the girl's hands. 'Fairy tales? You're too old to be filling your head with such nonsense,' she says.
It's a view many would share - but one that Guillermo del Toro challenges with what may be the most powerful film of his career. Nominally a story about Ofelia's travels and travails in a mythical world filled with fauns and ogres, Pan's Labyrinth is - like del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001) - a thinly veiled metaphor about how innocence and idealism should prevail even amid tyranny, and illustrates vividly how imagination can empower the powerless.
And tyrannical times they are for Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who is forced to adapt to a new life in the war-torn countryside and a new father in the shape of Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a Francoist army captain who uses sadistic methods to flush Republicans from the woods and help create a 'new and cleansed Spain'. As Falangist horror unravels around her, Ofelia seeks solace in a bizarre netherworld, where she befriends a faun (the heavily made-up Doug Jones).
What follows is a gripping double-narrative, with Ofelia's real-world observations about the excesses of Vidal and his cronies mirrored in her experiences in the labyrinth. A lavish feast for the military brass and clergymen has its parallel in the mythical world. Del Toro's indictment of the Church's role under Franco is channelled through a pallid creature with eyeballs in the palms of its hands.
By conjuring the most horrid grotesqueries through special effects and makeup - plus an aura of gothic gloom - del Toro succeeds in evoking the repression and sadism at the heart of Spanish society during Franco's rule. In doing so, he again shows the edge that horror films should possess - that such imagined evil and cruelty reflects actual events.
The way the film careers towards tragedy is, perhaps, del Toro's own Homage to Catalonia. By injecting such melancholic beauty into the struggles of Ofelia, del Toro - assisted by a remarkable cast, especially Baquero and Lopez - keeps hope burning for humanity and progress. That, along with the film's technical wizardry, makes Pan's Labyrinth a masterpiece.
Pan's Labyrinth opens today