A Friday Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

Friday 1 December (2006)

I’m working Sunday, so I won’t be in the mood to write this then – so enjoy a one-off Friday review instead. 

pan's labyrinth (el labertino del fauno)

Earlier this year, I went to see Little Miss Sunshine, and I absolutely loved it – I said it was the best film of 2006. I spoke, it seems, too soon…

Yes, Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Labertino del Fauno, if you speak Spanish) really is that good. Believe the hype! I know it’s trendy to go and watch those indie movies that the critics try and tell you are amazing, and watching a subtitled film is tantamount to having ‘intellectual’ tattooed across your face, but this film is simply the most exhilirating cinematic experience available this year. And I mean, I saw Casino Royale and The Pick of Destiny this week as well. Both of those movies were good enough to warrant a rave review from me – but they pale in comparison to Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece.

Set in 1940’s Spain, twelve year-old Ofelia (a fantastic performance from Ivana Baquero) and her mother are moving from the city to the countryside. Her mother has married one Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, and the movies’ second incredible performance) who is an officer in the Spanish Army, stationed in the outback to rid the area of rebels. Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with his child, and very ill. Set against this backdrop of intrigue and horror as the war rages on, Ofelia discovers a faun in a labyrinth within the grounds of the house – and he tells her that she is the reincarnation of a princess from an underground kingdom, and that if she completes three tasks to prove her worth she can return home. So begins this peculiar, genius tale of magic juxtaposed with the harsh realities of life in Spain at that time.

I think the main reason that the movie works so well is that each aspect of it – the magic and the realism – are superb in their own right. Remove one or the other, and there’s still a functioning movie remaining, whether it would be a serious drama about the war, Franco and the rebels, or a fairytale story set completely within the realms of magic. The movie is told from Ofelia’s eyes, and it is only her who ever experiences the magic – leaving it open to debate whether or not it’s all just her imagination, or even a more serious hallucinatory delusion – or, of course, real magic.

The three tasks Ofelia must perform are absolutely bizarre, and completely original, and as such they’re enthralling. First she has to rescue a tree from a giant toad, by feeding it some magic stones, and then remove a key from its belly. (I know.) Then she has to enter a bizarre, nightmareish dimension – the realm of the Pale Man. This scene is genuinely exhilirating and quite terrifying (Sally could barely watch it, she said it was ‘the stuff of my nightmares’) and it’s easily the most traditional ‘horror’ scene. Without spoiling it, I’ll just say that when Ofelia enters the room of the dormant Pale Man, there are murals adorning the walls of him eating babies. And of course, I won’t spoil the third task for you either, but my God, it’s a good one.

Whilst all this is going on, Captain Vidal is quite horrifically going about the business of killing rebels. The man is violent and dangerous, and a true fascist to boot. Like all good villains, whenever he is on the screen there’s a palpable sense of fear, both in the audience and the characters around him, that he’s going to do something terrible. It’s also clear that he cares more for his unborn son than his wife, at one point telling a doctor ‘If you have to choose, save the child.’

I can’t think of a film where the devastatingly realistic world we live in has been so well married to a fantastic land of magic – it’s kind of like Narnia (even down to the backdrop of ‘war in the real world’) but it’s so much more engrossing. Really, you just have to see this for yourself. Little Miss Sunshine, I’m sorry – but Pan’s Labyrinth is the best film of 2006. It’s a masterpiece, and I love it.

PS. The music is fantastic too 🙂


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