Following Francisco Franco’s fascist takeover at the height of the Spanish Civil War, a teen girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) loses her father in the brutality. Fearful she will not be able to take care of her daughter, Ofelia’s mother hastily remarries the frosty Spanish Capitán Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Soon, she finds she is pregnant, and Vidal insists the two move from the city to the stepfather’s military outpost in the remote Spanish countryside.
Ofelia’s dread is confirmed after the reproachful greeting she receives from the Capitán, who is clearly interested in making sure the delivery of his son (he’s sure it’s a boy, for whatever reason) goes off without a hitch. Mother and daughter are disposable. In fact, as the time for the birth draws nearer, he instructs the nurse to save the child, even if that means his wife must die in the process.
Surrounded by the ruthlessness of fascism, Ofelia retreats to her stories. She loves fairy tales of all sorts, despite numerous people telling her she is too old for the rubbish. But even Ofelia gets more than she bargained for one night when she is led to a mysterious chamber beneath an ancient labyrinth. There, she meets a mystifying creature who informs Ofelia that she is not human at all, but rather that she is Princess Moanna, an estranged immortal from the Underworld. But in order to regain her rightful throne, she must complete three tasks to ensure she has not been corrupted by the human race.
Ofelia is convinced the encounter really occurred, but those around her try in vain to inform her that life is not always a fairy tale. But Ofelia continues to pursue the tasks bestowed on her, and soon those around her notice the signs as well. So as the war around her escalates, so do Ofelia’s tasks. But is this all just a figment of her imagination, or has this seemingly normal girl discovered something not of this world?
Made entirely in Spanish, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark but gripping adult fantasy tale that serves equally well as a fast-paced thriller and as a psychological drama. Mexican horror specialist Guillermo del Toro weaves the brutality of war with the coming-of-age story of a girl with a foot in two entirely separate worlds—even if the second doesn’t exist at all. Del Toro masterfully goes beyond the simplicity of fantasy and combines this with a carefully molded and highly realistic war drama. Labyrinth’s actors are superb, and its visuals are stunning. It is original, captivating, and eventually heartwarming.
Ofelia’s “tasks” are richly symbolic in nature. Each tests her character in a different way: courage, obedience, selflessness. Her fallibility is most certainly being questioned, and it is truly heart wrenching to watch her struggle against her own failure. Its moving conclusion leaves many questions unanswered, but still provides the audience with a feeling of closure and finality.
The film is made even more interesting in the fact that it is told through the eyes of this ten year-old girl. Ofelia takes us on a journey through a world that is intended to make us fearful, and her own fear is painfully evident through the dark nature of her fairy tale. Ofelia is surely naïve to think she can truly escape her unfortunate reality, but at the same time her determination and overall persona is superbly likable. But that in itself begs the question: is this girl a victim of her imagination, or has she stumbled across something truly unbelievable? Del Toro never really tells us; instead he allows us to fall victim to our own imaginations. 4 ½ stars
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