What does a child do when she is trapped in war, bloodshed, cruelty, pain, turmoil – she conjures her own netherworld where a fairytale unfolds!
Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie grounded on the fascist Spanish War on one hand and fantasy on the other. Both seem true and real on their own terms. While a devastating battle is raging outside, a fairytale is shaping up somewhere in a forest labyrinth. Where there is a bloodthirsty Captain marauding and murdering the republicans there are the devious fawns and fairies giving gruelling tasks to a child. Is this a war movie weaved in with fantasy or is it a fairytale weaved in with war? It’s your take at the end of the day!
Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie by Guillermo del Toro, which is similar to his previous The Devil’s Backbone, in its war setting and using children to bring out the pathos and pain. The significant difference in these two movies is that here he does not talk about morality and values but deals more in surrealism.
The movie is set in Madrid, after Spanish Civil War when Franco and his Fascist army attempted to quell the rebel uprising. Though it has a surreal fantasy realm, it nevertheless does not tone down the brutality of that period. The film opens with Ofelia and her mother Carmen, played by Ariadna Gill, arriving at a garrison commanded by Captain Vidal, Sergei Lopez. Vidal is a sadistic barbarian who executes the guerrilla rebels with savagery beyond comprehension. The Captain is not just brutal with the rebels but Carmen and Ofelia too have to suffer utter humiliation at his hands. It is clear that he has no kind intentions for them and has brought them along because Carmen is pregnant with his child who he hopes is a boy.
One evening following a dragonfly Ofelia finds herself inside a maze hidden somewhere in the forest ruled by Pan the faun. The other world also has a goatish creature with menacing horns, a giant toad and a Pale Man who holds his eyes in his hands. They give her series of tasks which she must complete or face dire consequences .
Little does the Captain know that the guerrilla sympathisers are in his own household; the housekeeper Marcedes , played by Maribel Verdu, and the doctor, Alex Angulo, who attends to Carmen, represents the movie’s alternatives to the militarised population. Mercedes’s clandestine visits to the rebels coincide with Ofelia’s sojourn into the fairyland, which suggests that the vanquished Spanish Republic is now almost a dream and a fairytale in itself.
With Ofelia trying to complete her tasks, one of them being, keeping her mother safe, and her step father antagonising the rebels the story moves ahead with a haunting pace. In fact the ending is etched in the minds and lingers on much after the movie ends. The story finishes in an eerie tension. What happens to the princess of the labyrinth? Does the faun keep his promise? Is the throne restored and does a new era of peace begin or is it the culmination of our existence as we see it.
Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth juxtaposes two untenable materials that plays true on both sides. On one side there is the inhuman Captain and on the other side the Faun, both playing the weaker ones. One grounded in reality, the other in fantasy of a child or perhaps the fantasy of the collective consciousness of Spain itself.
Whatever it is that you find, in the end it is unquestionable horror, fantasy, history all weaved into one compelling yarn that pulls us into the labyrinth making us hope and making us cry but, staying in our minds for a long, long time.
I leave you with the trailer of Pan’s Labyrinth