This week in film review it's Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro's stunningly bleak fairy tale set in post-Civil War Spain. The costumes and special effects are extraordinary, as is the rich, multi-layered plotline. El Laberinto del Fauno weaves together the horrors of life under a totalitarian regime combined with the darkest elements of children's fable to create a fantasy classic.
Set in 1944, the film tells the story of a young girl called Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who is beginning a new life with her pregnant, widowed mother in an old mill-house in northern Spain. Though the Civil War is over, try telling that to Ofelia's new stepfather, the haunted Falangist army captain (Sergi Lopez), who is still hunting down and executing Republican rebels like it's 1934. It doesn't take long for Ofelia to understand that her new life is on a knife-edge.
While Ofelia's mother is not in danger, owing to her breeding capability, Ofelia is clearly shown to be in a second, altogether less secure category in her stepfather's eyes; that of the barely tolerated appendage. Into a third category - that of Republicans who will be shot if they're exposed - fall several sympathetic locals, including the doctor (Alex Angulo) and housekeeper (Maribel Verdu).
Horrified by the thought of domestic life with this real-life monster, the introverted Ofelia is drawn into a bizarre fantasy involving fairy-tale ones. She is summoned one night by a fairy - in the form of a preying mantis - to visit a faun (Doug Jones), who lives at the centre of a labyrinth. This faun, while being infinitely preferable to the sadistic Captain, lives in a nightmarish lair piled with second-hand shoes, which evoke images of the holocaust occuring in other parts of Europe that same year. The faun tells Ofelia she is a princess and must complete three tasks if she wishes to see her real father - apparently an errant King - again. These tasks turn out to be bone-tinglingly frightful. One involves seeking out a disgusting toad which lives under a tree and taking a key from inside its body. Another involves a nightmareish adventure with a ragged-skinned monster with eyes on his hands. Guillermo del Toro has long been interested in the workings of biology, in particular insects, amphibians and creatures that metamorphose. Combining these interests with his passion for symbolist art, he creates memorably creepy images. Each creature is both strikingly original and disturbing.
Meanwhile the human world isn't looking any better by comparison. Captain Vidal executes two rabbit poachers on suspicion of being rebels. When rabbits are tellingly found in their hold-alls, the Captain's only regret is that his time has been wasted. The housekeeper Marivel's chlandestine jaunts out into the woods to provide the rebels with supplies are building towards desperate trouble, and Ofelia's mother is entering the final stages of her pregnancy with the increasingly unpredictable Vidal's child.
Del Toro uses his colour palette as an infrared gauge of human decency. The mill itself, a symbol of Franco's regime complete with horrible secrets buried in its gardens, is shot in cold cobalt-blue, as are the Falangists in their military suits. The sympathetic Republican characters dress in warmish browns abnd light colours, bringing an autumnal warmth into each frame. They are earthy, defiant, resistant. They don't rely on a supernatural forces of good or evil. As said in a review in the The New York Times, 'for (Guillermo) Del Toro the opposite of evil is not holiness, but decency.,..Ofelia serves as her stepfather’s foil not because of her absolute goodness or innocence but rather because she is skeptical, stubborn and independent-minded.' The suggestion is that Ofelia is almost an orphan child, closer in spirit to the housekeeper whose dangerous forays into the woods mirror her own descents into the faun's maze, rather than the passive mother pregnant with a half-brother conceived by a monstrous oppressor. Interestingly, the fantasy world and the real world are presented not as separate entities, but as one flowing on from the other via frames separated by areas of darkness.
Pan's Labyrinth is a devastatingly complete film on many levels, never going for the easy or obvious, and offering horror on both a conscious and unconscious level, meaning there is no escape in daylight from the residue of nightmare, nor from reality into the fluffiness of dream. This, combining with its horrendous/stupendous costumes and visually appealing sets, makes Pan's Labyrinth a uniquely absorbing film.