A co-worker had mentioned this movie – Pan’s Labyrinth – to me a while ago and by chance I watched it again over the last weekend. Don’t get discouraged by the dark fantasy looking and appeal of the DVD cover. The fact its main character is an eleven year old girl (played by actress Ivana Baquero) living half of her life in the make believe scenario of her dreams and half in the no less absurd nightmare of post Civil War Spain does not make this is a movie for kids.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a Guillermo del Toro movie and Netflix has it : http://dvd.netflix.com/Movie/Pan-sLabyrinth/70050507?trkid=931747(El Laberinto del Fauno, in Spanish – “The Faun’s Labyrinth“). A faun, by the way, according to Wikipedia, because I could not put my own visualization of this creature into English words, is a rustic forest god of Roman mythology often associated with Greek satyrs and the Greek god Pan – thus Pan’s Labyrinth. All I remembered from high school was that Pan is a satyr and satyrs are creatures who are a mix of man – upper torso- and a wild animal, maybe a deer, from the waist line down.
Ophelia is the girl’s name and her mom is a widow, pretty and frail, who has just remarried. Her new husband is a captain of Franco’s army in 1944, resolute in his plans to eradicate every single soldier or member of the Spanish resistance that happens to cross his path, as violently as possible. He will also be the father of Ophelia’s baby brother soon. With his wife extremely ill, Captain Vidal tells the doctor, if you have to make a choice, save my son not my wife, which Ophelia overhears, hiding below her mom’s bed.
As the gloomy days pass by in the old and squeaky house in the Spanish country side, with no friends of her age and sensing the stepfather’s malevolence around her, Ophelia resorts to the fantastic world of an overgrown maze or labyrinth inhabited by this mythological creature, the faun. He assures Ophelia she is the long lost princess of an almost forgotten kingdom and that if she completes three very difficult and dangerous tasks, she will return to her father’s palace, where she has been long waited and sorely missed.
The faun himself is an enigmatic character. We don’t really know whether he is good or evil, maybe because he reflects Ophelia’s own confusion about the world she is now witnessing. The line between good and bad seems blurred beyond recognition; Ophelia wants to do whatever it takes to bring her world back to a state of purity where goodness and honor prevail and love restores sense and order.
The faun’s voice is deep, old and cavernous; he is as tall and as imposing as an old oak tree, and has Mr. Spock’s pointy ears. His words are poetic, convincing and prophetic but his facial expressions go from kindness and sympathy to hatred and anger in the blink of an eye. Something about his very movements feels suspicious. Ophelia’s disgust at reality is so strong at one point the faun gives her a magic piece of chalk with which she can draw a door or window, whenever she feels threatened, on any surface, and run away through it.
The fantastic creatures that parade on the screen include insects that metamorphose in perfectly delicate fairies, a children-eating demon with no eyes and a distended pale belly that hangs grossly between his skeleton limbs, and a glutinous slimy frog that resembles Star War’s Jabba the Hutt; all masterfully created. The kind hearts that briefly cross Ophelia’s path in the real world (the doctor who cares for her mother and a maid named Mercedes, whose boyfriend is a member of the anti-fascist resistance) can’t do much to help and succumb to the evil captain Vidal. Ophelia’s own mother is rendered powerless, even with some magic help from the faun. It’s a war movie seen through the eyes of a child but it does not make it any more innocent.
Despite Ophelia’s young age she is brave and dignified, like the princess the faun promised she has always been under her mortal human appearance. She takes upon herself the task of stopping evil and saving his baby brother’s life. In the end, we learn what we already knew – that real world evil, inflicted by flesh and blood, holds a much stronger and more permanent grip over our life and fate than monsters and apparitions, who simply vanish when we grow older. Pan’s Labyrinth is a parable about the twists and turns the human mind can come up with when we feel hopelessly under attack. But then again it’s just a fairy tale written for grownups. Excellent entertainment either way.