1944. Franco's authoritarian fascist regime is a horrid world for a child, barely into her teens. Ofelia retreats into herself, finding in her fantasy world the lessons of courage, self-discipline and integrity she will need. With her, we travel beyond outward appearances, through a labyrinth of fears and uncertainties, from which Spain will not escape for several decades.
A dark, brutal fairytale, chillingly set in the real world but full of hope and warmth, Pan's Labyrinth accomplishes a masterpiece.
Our film opens with a momentary shot of Ofelia, blood from a nosebleed disappearing as the frames are introduced in reverse. A voice-over takes us back to the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia arrives (with her pregnant mother) at a nationalist military base in the woods and is introduced to her stepfather, a vicious commanding officer. Capitán Vidal dispenses arbitrary justice to anyone he suspects is against him. Two suspected rebels caught by his men are summarily executed. Only afterwards is a rabbit discovered in their bag, proving their claim that they are just woodsmen (and maybe also a throwaway reference to Alice in Wonderland).
Ofelia is unwilling to accept this harsh adult world. She retreats into a labyrinth where she meets a strange Pan-like creatures, Fauno, who gives her a set of tasks where she has to face some of her darkest fears, winning a key for her next task.
The story becomes more intense, both outside the labyrinth (where Vidal is busy torturing people) and inside, where Ofelia has to face the Pale Man - a creature that has plucked out its eyes and can only see by placing them in the stigmata on its hands. Around the walls of the room are pictures of people being cast into hell by the Pale Man (From inference or the director's comments, it is apparent that the Pale Man represents authoritarianism, whether that of the Fascists or the Church). In Pan's Labyrinth we have a parable about the journey of Spanish society from the 1940s to post-Franco, a magical fairytale of stunning beauty, a story of the struggle and character development of a child on the edge of puberty, and a tense story of battles between Nationalists and Republicans. That they are all welded together seamlessly and precisely in a multi-level narrative is a remarkable achievement and thrilling experience. The sheer artistry recalls Cocteau's La Belle at la Bête. Del Toro sweeps us into a dreamlike, poetic vision, with a minimum of CGI and a grasp of dialogue that seems almost transcendental.
In a brave decision, an actor (Ivana Baquero) who is only as old as her character has been used to play the young Ofelia. But as the ethereal figure between two worlds, she is also there to cast the earthy characters involved in material battles into more visceral contrast. Editing is crisp throughout, without a single frame wasted. Rich colours and unflinching camera-work keep us rooted in the experience, whether it is Ofelia crawling face-down in the mud and covered with insects, or a hapless victim having his nose smashed in by the Capitán. Yet scenes of tenderness and beauty are equally as moving - Ofelia retreating into her mother's arms, a nursemaid powerless to help her republican lover, or a doctor performing an act of mercy.
The movies, like our dreams, folklore and imagination, are rich with symbols and images that can strike a chord in our deepest being. Artists, as well as creators of myths and religion, have long employed such symbols to guide and inspire, knowing that the conscious mind may accept a sign more easily than rational argument alone.
In watching a movie, we combine ideas of the real, the imaginary and the symbolic to find an inner affinity. And, if the filmmaker has done his job properly, will feel truly moved.
One of the things that can make or break a movie that makes extensive use of symbols is whether those symbols echo in the collective unconscious, often through time honoured association, or not. Knowledge of mythology or Jungian psychology can make all the difference. Much has been made of the title. Originally 'El Laberinto del Fauno', the translation at first appears sloppy, but Del Toro has done his research well. While quipping that it 'just sounded better', a little investigation of classical authorities shows Faunus as a form of the ancient god Pan (Lempriere). Pan, the goat-like god that represents a totality of possibilities, together with goat-like stubbornness and independence of thought, is the perfect symbol. In the film he says, "I've had so many names... I am the mountain, the forest and the earth. . . . I am a faun. Your most humble servant, Your Highness." In Greek Mythology, Pan also won the affections of a princess under the form of a goat. The freedom of thought (and sexuality) he advocated, with the rise of Christianity, caused him to be portrayed as the Devil; but we learn his intentions are good, whereas the holy-looking Pale Man offers temptation only as an excuse to rip his victims apart. As an aspect of the creative power, fauns in mythology also symbolise firm aspiration and human intelligence.
The one symbol that Del Torro is less adept in using is that of dying. He tends to use the valid, if flawed connotation of redemption-through-death promoted by the religions he disavows, but it is a small point that in no way spoils the story.
Pan's Labyrinth leads us through parallel stories and themes without once losing its internal consistency. Some audiences may be put off by the idea of using flights of fancy in such a blatant way or, sadly, by the fact that it is subtitled. Such minor monsters should not get in the way of enjoying the film on a simple entertainment level. Cinephiles, on the other hand, will not want to miss such a rare treat of talent.