FEATURING: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones,
PLOT: While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity. We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill. With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.
- Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
- Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
- Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects. He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno. Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit. If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
- Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
- Despite not winning any major awards, eight top critics—including Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Mark Kermode—selected El Laberinto del Fauno as the best film of 2006. With a 98% positive ranking, Metacrtitic considers it the second best reviewed film of 2006 (trailing only Army of Shadows, a lost 1969 Italian classic re-released in the United States in 2006).
- Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of our rule that the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird. The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot. The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s head or not. The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films. Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.
Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth
COMMENTS: You can have brilliant cinematography, masterful acting, awe-inspiring spectacle, and evocative music—and Pan’s Labyrinth has all of these—but you can’t create a classic without a great, emotionally engaging story to tell. Although del Toro insists that he tells his stories primarily through images, it’s Pan’s Labyrinth‘s tight, simple, elegant script that delivers a tale that immediately feels timeless. When we think back on the movie, the visions of the praying mantis turning into a fairy before our eyes, the Toad imploding and turning itself inside out, or the Pale Man glaring through the eyeballs in his palms as he chases Ofelia through the darkened vaulted corridors may come to mind first; but we also remember Captain Vidal’s brutal execution of an innocent man with a bottle, the Doctor’s calm defiance as he turns his back on Vidal’s drawn pistol and walks slowly away to his fate, and Ofelia’s heartbreakingly naive pleas to her unborn brother not to hurt their mother. Pan’s Labyrinth appeals equally to our love of escapism and to our need to be grounded in this flawed world, to our sense of childlike wonder and to the bittersweet wisdom of adulthood, and holds those opposing impulses together in a delightful tension. Good stories require conflict, and although there are mesmerizing conflicts here between Ofelia and the Captain, and between the Fascists and the rebels, the most involving conflict in this story is the one between fantasy and reality.
Structurally, there are two stories here, the tale of the quests the faun requires Ofelia to undertake to prove her fey pedigree, and a wartime drama in post-Civil War Spain. Taken out of context, the “real” story—the tale of fascist Captain Vidal’s tyrannical rule over his own household, as well as the populace he lords himself over—could seem lightweight and cliched. Though brilliantly realized by Sergi López, the captain is a stock sadist with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. He exists solely for the audience to hate. Mercedes, the house manager secretly working with the rebels, the doctor, and the other resistance figures are unconditionally good; they exist solely for the audience to root for. The rebels haunting the woods are ciphers, sometimes almost mythological creatures; del Toro points out on his commentary track that he even has them materialize out of the forest like ghosts or spirits when they appear. The storyline moves on a standard emotional track: the Captain is cruel and arrogant, killing innocents and taking an almost sexual delight in torture, the resistance is noble and self-sacrificing. In the end the audience is appeased when evil is cleansed through a viscerally satisfying act of redemptive violence.
But even though the story is a stock one and its characters merely types, it never rings false for a moment, and in fact moves us intensely. The war story itself is a sort of modern, cinematic fairy tale about good triumphing over evil. That plotline is informed by, and feeds off, the simultaneous telling of Ofelia’s fairy tale, one which follows all the conventions of a story by Grimm. One of the ironies of the narrative is that, in many ways, Ofelia’s “fantasy” world is more complex and emotionally real than the world that seems to exist outside her head. The faun, for example, is not a simple cardboard character; he is neither good nor evil. He is alternately obsequious towards Ofelia (addressing her as “your Highness”) and subtly menacing. His appearance is simultaneous attractive, almost cute, and uncanny. He offers Ofelia what seems to be her only hope for happiness and temporarily cures her sick mother, yet in the end he is not to be trusted. Whereas the ethical choices in the “real” world are cut and dried—it is only a question of whether one has the courage to do what is right—Ofelia is forced to make tougher, more complex decisions in the fairy world.
Fairy tales, especially in their pre-Disneyfied original forms as oral folk legends, appeal to children because their weird magical incidents and clearly defined monsters are easier to understand and accept than the incomprehensible rituals of adulthood. Children can’t understand the mysteries of sex, the complicated relationships of their parents, and the necessity to compromise principles sometimes just to survive. Ofelia struggles to understand why her mother submits herself to the horrible Captain, who shows his wife no tenderness and cares only about his unborn son. The girl senses instinctively that the Captain is evil, but as a child she can’t know the extent of his depravity. On the other hand, she has no difficulty accepting and understanding the pure evil embodied by the Pale Man, the Captain’s fantastic doppelgänger and the weirdest character in Pan’s Labyrinth.
It’s significant that the descent into the Pale Man’s mysterious lair occurs at the exact midpoint of the story; Ofelia’s mixed success in completing her quest inside these nightmare chambers is the pivot on which the rest of her tale will swing. In terms of tone, this irrational, mythological sequence puts weirdness the center of the tale; its universal nightmarishness echoes the more particular horrors of the war raging outside. The Pale Man is mysterious beyond just his monstrous appearance, with his bags of loose skin hanging off his skeletal frame, his noseless nostrils, and the detachable eyeballs he wears in the palms of his hands. The realm he rules over is equally perverse; he sits unseeing before an uneaten banquet, with friezes celebrating his historic child-killings lining the walls, and his eyeballs lying on a gold plate in front of him. Chillingly, a pile of shoes sits in a corner. And while Ofelia is in his kingdom, she is in a kind of trance. The irrational and contradictory rules in this realm. Ofelia’s fairy companions deliberately mislead her for inscrutable reasons, but her intuition proves true; soon after, her instinct betrays her while she ignores the fairies’ accurate warnings. The fairy world—which may be all inside Ofelia’s head—is more confused, psychologically deep, and meaningful than the black-and-white conflict between Fascism and principled resistance in the real world.
The Pale Man is a deliberate, distorted mirror image of the Captain. Not only does his role as devourer of innocents reflect the Captain’s inherent sadism, but the wasteful banquet he presides over reminds us of the extravagant feast Vidal throws for the provincial notables, featuring rabbits he has taken from his victims. Even more so than the seamless visual wipes Del Toro uses to transition from the real world to the fantasy world, it’s the repetition of fairy tale motifs that recur in the real world that link the two realms in our minds. Particularly obvious are the connections between Ofelia and Mercedes, her surrogate mother, role model, and Vidal’s chief antagonist. The faun requires Ofelia to find a key in her first quest; Mercedes steals a key to help the rebels. Completing her second task wins Ofelia a magical dagger; a desperate Mercedes palms a kitchen knife that will prove crucial later. In the separate climaxes that conclude the two halves of the movie, both Mercedes and Ofelia will hold the life of another in their hands. There are a multitude of other parallels sprinkled throughout the film, and although they work only subliminally on a first viewing, it can be a treat to pick them out on a second. The doctor prescribes two drops of medicine to palliate Ofelia’s mother; the faun prescribes two drops of blood to cure her. The principled disobedience and sacrifice of the doctor, the emotional highlight of the war story, finds its double during the faun’s final test of Ofelia. The doubling of images from fairyland into fascist Spain lends a mythic resonance to the simplistic war story. Del Toro calls these correspondences echoes, but I think of them as stitches; they sew the two stories together into a unified two-headed monster, with the sinister heads of the Captain and the Pale Man springing from a single trunk.
It’s the world of the Captain and Mercedes that involves us emotionally—because we can relate to these real life characters—but it’s Ofelia’s fairyland that astounds and attracts us. The streamlined world of fairy, with three clear tasks that have to be completed to win the prize and clearly defined moments where a single choice will determine our fate, is far more alluring than the wartime world where battles are fought incrementally and noble gestures can be in vain. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the real world is simplified so we, the audience, can achieve an easy proxy victory over evil; but because the movie is set during a precise historical tragedy, we realize that things don’t always work out that way. The vision of resistance here is itself a wish-fulfillment fairy tale. If we know our history, we realize that the Allies are never coming to liberate Spain, and the rebels have already lost. Winning the symbolic battle fought in Pan’s Labyrinth can’t change the fact that the Republicans lost the war. We also know that the Utopian vision of equality espoused by the rebels, and mocked by the Captain, is a pure illusion. In the best deconstructionist tradition, del Toro raises the question of whether both of the stories aren’t really fairy tales—and the question of whether it might be preferable to view them that way. Might there be a greater truth in the stories we deliberately mold to guide ourselves than in the accidental realities of history?
In the end, Pan’s Labyrinth never tells us whether the faun is real, and whether Ofelia is really the incarnation of Moanna, immortal princess of the underworld. Del Toro deliberately provides us with evidence for either position. Did Ofelia escape from the locked room by drawing a door on the wall with her magical chalk? Or did someone hear her screams and let her out, off-camera? Did the mandrake root heal the mother, or is it just coincidence that she got better when it was placed under her bed, and had a miscarriage when it was removed? Can the Captain not see the faun because it is only in Ofelia’s imagination, or because it is invisible to everyone but fellow immortals? Does the fairy world exist eternally alongside our world, or does it die with Ofelia? Some will feel compelled to take a strong position on one side or the other, and debate the contradictory evidence endlessly on message boards. Others will see the beauty inherent in the ambiguous construction. Del Toro is forcing us to choose, to take a position on whether the Other World is real or imaginary. One choice leads to great beauty and hope of something beyond. On the other side is death, and acceptance that we are all doomed. The director’s commentary reveals that Del Toro believes the magic was real. But he’s not didactic, and he doesn’t demand anyone come to the same conclusion. The choice is up to us.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“If you recall the chills that ran down your spine and the surreal humor that tickled your brain in the presence of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when you were a child (or, later, in the nightmarish dream-films of Luis Bunuel, Jean Cocteau, F.W. Murnau or David Cronenberg), you’ll discover those sensations once again, buried deep in the heart of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.'”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)
“Guillermo del Toro’s films do not starve for creatures of baroque ingenuity, and Pan’s Labyrinth, the vividly aestheticized tale of a young girl’s journey through the gothic rabbit hole of her imagination, is cluttered with insects that morph into faeries, a faun who gatekeeps an unknown dimension, a large toad with a secret in its volatile tummy, and a merciless monster with eyes in the palms of its hands… Del Toro is smart but he’s no theoretician, and though he takes aim at fascism, his vision is scarcely surreal; though prone to sensualist shocks, his comic-con aesthetic is so tidy and discreetly alluring Buñuel might have called it bourgeois.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine (contemporaneous)
“A fairy tale not even remotely intended for children, this entrancing magical-realist drama concocts a sinister spin on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ against the war-torn backdrop of 1940s Spain, shifting between two worlds with striking craft and discipline… Del Toro’s taste for matter-of-fact surrealism inevitably means that some of the story’s metaphorical and mythological underpinnings remain elusive, though for the most part the story’s flow is so relentless that explanations feel almost unnecessary.”–Justin Chang, Variety (contemporaneous)
Pan’s Labyrinth – The official site won a “Webby” award for Best Movie Site of 2007. Contains numerous stills, trailers, downloadable icons and wallpapers, and a Web version of del Toro’s sketchbooks for the film.
MySpace – Pan’s Labyrinth – the movie’s official MySapce page
IMDB LINK: El laberinto del fauno (2006)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – The Criterion Collection – Features the trailer, a video essay, and Michael Atkinson’s essay
Girl Interrupted – Mark Kermode’s reverent piece from Sight & Sound about Pan’s Labyrinth, containing enough quotes from del Toro that the director should have been credited as the co-writer
Escaping Into the Real – excellent, insightful criticism from Timothy Miller on Pan’s Labyrinth‘s ambiguous attitude towards escapism
Pan’s Labyrinth at the Guillermo del Toro Fansite – Pan’s Labyrinth quotes and links from the director’s fansite
Pan’s Labyrinth – this monograph on the film by Paul Julian Smith, professor of Spanish at Cambridge University, appears to be unpublished and may be unfinished, but contains some noteworthy observations
American Cinematographer: Fear and Fantasy – extensive discussion of the visual strategy of the film, incorporating quotes from Director of Photography Guillermo Navarro
Doug Jones – the Making of a Fantasy – archive of behind the scenes images and videos of the makeup and special effects work by DDT Efectos Especiales for the film, courtesy of Doug Jones’ website
Interview: Sergi Lopez on Pan’s Labyrinth – quotes from Lopez, who played the Captain, on his character and on working with del Toro
DVD INFO: With no featurette included (only trailers), New Line’s 1 disc edition (buy) could be considered a little light on extras. The interactive DVD-ROM features can be cool, but you have to have a PC (no Mac’s allowed) and install extra included software to access them. If your system qualifies, you’ll find that you can access the official website and see the same sketchbook information in a custom browser (yippee). More interesting is the “Interactive Viewing Experience,” which in theory allows you to access the full script, storyboards, stills and concept art at appropriate points as you watch the movie in a small box. I couldn’t get the video portion to run on two different Windows machines, however, although I could access the script and storyboards separately.
More important than the superficial features, however, is the commentary track from del Toro, which, from the perspective of understanding the creative process, is one of the best ever made. The director breaks down each scene and justifies nearly every artistic choice he makes in the film; he makes observations that even the most dedicated student would miss without the insights he provides (such as the fact that the two halves of the split tree trunk in Ofelia’s first quest resemble not only the horns of the faun, but also a diagram of the female reproductive system—well I’ll be damned).
The two-disc “Platinum” edition (buy) adds a disc of featurettes: The Power of Myth (on the fairy tale legends that influenced del Toro in constructing the scenario), The Faun and the Fairies (on the creation of the creatures that populate the film), The Color and The Shape (on the film’s use of color), and The Lullaby/Mercedes Lullaby Progression (on the musical theme). There’s also a Director’s Notebook (with sketchbook pages and storyboards that at least partially duplicate those found on the interactive portion of the single DVD); four semi-animated “DVD comics” providing mythical back-stories for the faun, toad, and Pale Man; and Charlie Rose’s 49 minute interview with del Toro and fellow Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and González Iñárritu (Babel).
The Blu-ray disc (buy) collects all the features on the two-disc DVD, adding minor behind-the-scenes footage. It also contains “Enhanced Visual Commentary” which allows the viewer to jump to picture-in-picture video commentary at appropriate points in the film.
UPDATE 10/24/16: In October 2016, the Criterion Collection landed the rights to Pan’s Labyrinth and put the movie out in DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) editions. Del Toro’s commentary is ported over from the New Line edition, along with the featurettes from the Platinum edition (see above) and new interviews with del Toro and actor Doug Jones.
The movie is also now available on video on-demand (rent or buy on-demand).
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Anna.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)