Innocence has a power evil cannot imagine.
It’s 1944, and in post-Civil War Spain a young girl, Ofelia, accompanies her pregnant mother to the base of ruthless Francoist officer Captain Vidal, her new step-father. After arriving at her new home, she is led by a fairy to an ancient, overgrown Labyrinth, where she encounters a faun who believes her to be a lost princess of legend, and sets her three tasks to test her quality. This dark fairytale plays out alongside the horrific reality of torture, fear and death which surrounds Ofelia, as Captain Vidal attempts to root out local anti-Francoist rebels, and her mother suffers from a complicated pregnancy. The line between the realms of fantasy and reality is so thin that the two become entwined, and we are left unsure as to whether we are watching the escapist imaginings of a terrified young mind, or the revelation of a hidden otherworld within the world of reality.
This film is quite simply beautiful. Its cinematography and visual effects are undeniably impressive, but equal praise must be given to Del Toro’s masterful storytelling. The many awards obtained by Pan’s Labyrinth, including three OSCARs and three BAFTAs, are testament to its success. As is the 22-minute standing ovation it received at the Cannes Film Festival. What’s more, it feels very different from your typical Hollywood blockbuster, and will stay with you long after the credits roll. It defies genre, combining adult fairytale with gritty war drama, to produce a unique cinematic experience, at times difficult to watch, but always compelling.
It’s 1944 and Spain is still reeling from the effects of its Civil War, with small factions still wreaking occasional havoc. At the beginning of the film, Ofelia and her pregnant mother are moving to the garrison where her stepfather, Captain Vidal, is posted.
Clearly not one for following the rules, Ofelia’s mind works magic with pieces of chalk and the nearby forest providing an adventure filled land. Ofelia’s trips lead to an encounter with a mysterious faun who sets her three challenges that provide the perfect escape from difficulties of the real world.
Whilst the young lead is battling giant toads and attempting to resist her desires, the resistance are plotting to infiltrate the military stronghold. The movement’s chief spy is Vidal’s personal servant Mercedes, a beautiful young woman who helps to take care of Ofelia. Always trusted by the Fascists up till now, Mercedes must fight for her people without being caught by the ruthless Captain.
Pan’s Labyrinth dovetails two wholly separate and yet crucially intertwined narratives, combining wildly different genres like no film before or since has dared to. It is the masterpiece that brought del Toro to the fore, and was probably hard done by winning only three Academy Awards (for art direction, cinematography and make up). This is a beautifully crafted and highly acclaimed piece of modern cinema, mixing adult fiction and brutality on the world stage. Put simply, this is a treat not to be missed on the big screen.
Pan’s Labyrinth is the Oscar-winning fantasy film focusing on a young girl forced to move with her mother to a garrisoned rural estate in fascist Spain. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) does not take well to living with her new stepfather, the captain of the local army, and with her mother falling ill, she soon escapes into an imaginary, alternative world in which she can escape the pain and insecurity of her everyday life. In an old labyrinth behind their country house, Ofelia meets an eccentric yet menacing faun who charges her with three tasks, the completion of which will see her able to escape reality altogether.
While carrying out these tests in gorgeous and often eerie imaginary landscapes, Ofelia faces situations and choices that mirror those she must face in the real world, conjuring up monsters and evils that parallel the brutal, unforgiving nature of her new stepfather Captain Vidal. While Vidal fights an almost personal war against a band of guerilla fighters set up in the local hills and forest, Ofelia attempts to care for her mother and her as yet unborn baby brother. Suspense builds when it is discovered that a rebel spy is present within the household and Ofelia is forced to deal with the very real consequences of her fairy tale missions.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a brilliantly directed film and is in my opinion del Toro’s best piece of work to date. The cinematography is masterful and the acting is first-class, with especially stunning performances by Sergi Lopez and the then eleven-year-old Baquero.
The fairy tale moments fit beautifully into the war-torn Spanish countryside, and at no point do the film's war, drama and fantasy elements, seem at odds. Do not be put off by the mention of fairy tales, as this is by no means a children’s film, with many a moment that will have even the bravest of you gripping your seats. To reinforce the fact that this is very much a fantasy film for adults, the violence is at some points very graphic but in no manner gratuitous, serving to confirm the brutal reality of war and its effect on the innocent. This film is truly an amazing spectacle and is well worth seeing on the big screen.
James Sedgewick Richardson-Bullock
1944 - the final flutters of the Spanish Civil War are playing out in the mountains of Northern Spain. Ofelia (Baquero) is travelling with her sickly, pregnant mother to a mill in the mountains in military convoy. The callous Captain Vidal (López) is her new step-father – leader of the military unit sent to eliminate the last few rebels from the surrounding hills.
Two stories unwind here, side by side. As Ofelia flees the confines of the military household and the awful truth of her mother's pregnancy, she escapes into a magical labyrinth - and a world of astonishing fantasy. But this strange and eerie landscape clashes with the tensions of the real world; there are two defectors inside the Captain's household, and more than just their lives are on the line.
Make no mistake, this is not a children's film. Pan's Labyrinth mixes beauty and brutality in equal measures, patches of serene calm interspersed with terrible violence. But both are heightened by this - the values of peace and the horror of war are given new context when placed side by side. This is a story about the value of innocence, and the struggle to keep it alive in a world filled with menace.
The movie's two worlds, real and fantastic, mark a great contrast. Both can be enchanting – the sun dappling amongst the forests of Northern Spain, the moon playing off the ancient stone of the labyrinth – and both horrifying. The terrors of the labyrinth are the stylised gothica of fairytales - the awful truths of the real world are played out in mud and human blood.
The heroes and villains of this movie are both human and supernatural. The inscrutable fawn Pan for example is a delightful (if morally ambiguous) creature, utterly inhuman and yet more comforting to the innocent Ofelia than her cruel step-father. Vidal is a villain without compare, a perfect personification of the uncaring machinery of fascism and a model of vile dedication.
Toro has created something shockingly rare here – a fantasy film that treats its audience like adults. Expect to be entranced - and appalled.
Screenings of this film:
|2006/2007 Spring Term – (35mm)|
|2006/2007 Spring Term – (35mm)|
|2008/2009 Autumn Term – (35mm)|
|2010/2011 Spring Term – (35mm)|
|2013/2014 Autumn Term – (digital)|
|2017/2018 Summer Term – (digital)|