[Warning -- contains spoilers]
Guillermo Del Toro has always been fascinated with Gothic fantasy, both the Victorian romance/horror and the Medieval sense of the word, the artistic moment when the profane melded into the sacred resulting in pious but often terrifying works. He grew up loving the tasteless and mania of splatter gore pictures, and yet rather than ape the free-flowing body fluids of the works of Sam Raimi or Herschell Gordon Lewis, Del Toro uses his more excessive effects in the aid of atmosphere. For though he often makes horror films, and damn good ones at that, his approach can be just as readily applied to his (relatively, as he doesn't waste money) big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.
Pan's Labyrinth is a masterpiece precisely because it reveals the director's knowledge of his strengths. He recognizes the current of atmospheric terror and imaginative horror/fantasy that runs through his work and strips away the detritus until he's left with the core of his auterial vision -- of wickedly dangerous but attractive iterations of classic fairy tale creatures, loving shots of creepy crawlies and of clocks and their innards. Upon that rock he builds his church, a vision of heaven and hell that comes less from a religious text than the minds of Lovecraft and Poe. In my review of Let the Right One In, I placed that film in a sort of unofficial triumvirate of fantastical horror stories involving children with the great Night of the Hunter and this opus, the three collectively representing the responses of pre-adolescents to terrifying circumstances. Night of the Hunter turned the stalkings of a murderous psychopath into a grim (or Grimm) fairy tale, while Let the Right One In dealt with teenage loneliness and hormonal rage with a romance both Platonic and thinly sexual.
Ofelia (Ivan Baquero), however, faces much larger problems. Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Pan's Labyrinth foists not just personal but sociopolitical terror upon the shoulders of its 10-year-old protagonist. Thus, her emotional defense mechanisms require greater fortitude and commitment to maintain some sense of sanity. As such, the film contains an almost boundless imagination, borne from the mind of a child who carries with her old, leather-bound copies of fairy tale books that look as if they collectively weigh as much as her.
Her father, a tailor, died in the war, though we don't know where his loyalties lied nor even if he served in the military. The mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), remarried to the fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi López) and suffers through complications from pregnancy. Vidal, an unsettling embodiment of the inherent fascism of male dominance, has his new family driven out to the Spanish countryside where he is mopping up lingering cells of Communist fighters. He risks his wife and his baby's health, but "a baby should be born where his father is." Already traumatized by the death of her father, Ofelia must contend with this terrifying man and the violence he perpetuates.
She finds a respite from these worldly concerns by following a stick insect (or fairy) to an ancient stone labyrinth near the estate Vidal has commandeered for them. Inside, she a spiral stone staircase leading deep into the ground, where she finds an antechamber filled with mysterious carvings and one very tall faun. The faun tells her that she is not borne of mankind but of the moon, the spirit of a long-lost princess of a forgotten realm and that he shall guide her back to her rightful home ere the full moon.
First, though, she must prove herself with a series of tasks. After completing each one, the faun gives her some reward to help her for the next trial. When Ofelia's mother begins hemorrhaging terribly, the faun gives the girl a mandrake root to place under Carmen's bed to heal her. Ofelia clearly views the faun as a much-needed father figure, but she's still a child and therefore can be quite insolent when she feels like it. More than once, she openly defies Vidal (the only character brave enough to do so to his face), disappoints her mother by ruining a pretty new dress in her adventures -- she enjoys going to be without supper as it spares her Vidal's presence -- and ignoring some of the faun's instructions, to horrific consequences.
Perhaps the greatest distillation of what makes a movie came from no-nonsense, versatile maestro Howard Hawks, who said, "A good movie has three great scenes, and no bad ones." Pan's Labyrinth certainly qualifies, and its three great scenes are some of the most memorable of the decade. The first involves Ofelia meeting the faun in the underground chamber. For all his size and distinctive design, the creature melded perfectly into the walls. Aided by Doug Jones' unassailable body language -- if you need to put a guy in a costume, you're not doing your film a service if you don't hire Jones -- the faun conveys wisdom and authority in his movements but also giddiness and care. Del Toro and his makeup and costume team of David Marti, Montse Ribe and Xavi Bastida craft the faun out of the elements: he seems less goat-like satyr and more wooden Ent, borne of the earth, stone and flora from which he emerges to meet Ofelia, looking all the more real because he is (Del Toro only uses CGI when what he wants cannot be physically recreated). When he says to the girl, "Do not be frightened," she isn't, nor is the audience, precisely because he's such a beautiful and striking creature.
The second is the harrowing scene of Del Toro's take on the myth of Persephone. Ofelia must travel through dimensions to the home of a dangerous creature to retrieve a ceremonial dagger. The faun warns the girl not to eat anything she finds there. Inside the portal is a terrifying vision indeed, of a humanoid monster frozen at a table, sat before a pair of eyes on a plate without sockets in his face to house them. Of course, the rest of the table is covered in mouth-watering food, and Ofelia can't help but grab a couple of grapes (you just can't find good pomegranate seeds anymore). The rest of the scene is the most nerve-wracking, suspenseful thing Del Toro has ever filmed; Gene Siskel used to complain about films putting children in danger for a cheap emotional impact, but had Del Toro placed Vidal himself in this situation, chased by a lumbering, hissing monster with eyes in its clawed hands and permanent blood stains on its mouth (also played by Jones), he would still have generated nail-biting terror.
The third great scene of the film, and I'm surprised to say this, involves a grisly torture scene. I'm not one to dictate what can and can't be shown on-screen, but the recent upswing in gratuitous torture porn has been the most revolting (and most inadvertently revealing) trend in contemporary cinema. To hear that Del Toro, a fan of splatter pictures, conducted a torture sequence should send me running for the hills then, yes? Well, no; in fact, Pan's Labyrinth is one of the only torture scenes in the movies (the haunting sequence in Godard's Le Petit Soldat being the only other example that comes to mind) of torture that Jonathan Rosenbaum calls "artistically justifiable on some level." Taking into account Rosenbaum's predilection for identifying and loudly decrying (as one should) what he perceives to be the fascism of many productions, that seemingly tepid compliment might as well be a pullquote on the DVD cover. It helps that Del Toro, whose sumptuous visuals made the rest of the film so inviting, curbs his style back to stark horror in the scene. As Vidal prepares to torture his stuttering captive, Del Toro uses only shot/reverse shot structures with cold lighting as the captain holds up various tools and describes the future of their "relationship" together. Del Toro then cuts away from the action, returning only to find the prisoner a horrific, bloody mess without forcing us to sit through the process that turned him into it. The scene ends with an act of mercy by the local doctor (who's been healing the other side the whole time) as powerfully felt as any of Ofelia's more noble actions, and I daresay that it ends a depiction of violence and tyranny on a note of beauty.
Yet while we all might (rightly) laud praise upon Del Toro's jaw-dropping visuals and his sense of flow, one must also pay attention to his script, not only the tautness of the emotional journey but of its allegorical qualities. All of Ofelia's tasks in some way connected to the real issues affecting Spain. Ofelia ventures to and old, mighty and gnarled tree to find a giant, slimy toad inside. It is bloated and greedy, the animus of Franco's fascism, which rations out food to the populace but lavishes upon its officers and honored members palaces and feasts. The Pale Man, whom Del Toro described to costume designers as "a fat man who suddenly lost all his weight, is the emaciated shell of the old Spanish monarchy, itself once fat on the blood of the peasants and capable of seeing only that which they wanted (hence the eyes in the hands) but now stripped of its privilege and authority but still a terrifying and murderous creation. Even Ofelia's baby brother is symbolic, representing the future of Spain. If the baby stays with Vidal and his ilk, Spain itself stays in the hands of the fascists. When Ofelia refuses to sacrifice him on the faun's orders, it's as much as declaration of her unwillingness to damn the country as it is a testament of familial bonds.
While she might have been upstaged by the child actors of Let the Right One In, Baquero gives one of the most memorable performances ever seen by a kid. She is somewhat bratty and overly precocious, yes, but she's also, out of all the kids we normally see, rebelling not only against adults but an entire system that most of us would condemn. She's also brave and ethical even at her worst, which is more than you can say for most characters (or real people, for that matter) at any age. Del Toro also extracts great work from his adult actors, particularly López as the sociopathic Vidal --near the end of the film he's on the receiveing end of a Glasgow smile, which makes him look uncomfortably like the Joker out of Nolan's Dark Knight -- and Maribel Verdú as Mercedes. Verdú is known for playing the sex goddess (see Y tu mamá también), but here she plays a haunted, sad housekeeper whose fury is unleashed in the end, a wrath that can rival Vidal in pure intimidation. It's one more aspect of Del Toro that might be masked in the shadow of his stunning visual acumen, and yet more proof that he's one of the finest directors working anywhere in the world today.
There are those who will ask whether Ofelia's adventures are real or imagined, as if the answer means anything or proves its quality or lack thereof. The film opens with its ending, played backwards as a dying Ofelia's blood returns to its wound; perhaps, then, the events were not only imagined but created on her deathbed, a final, hallucinatory fever dream à la Mullholland Dr. But does that make any of this less "real"? If this is some escapist reverie, why is the sound design so harsh and immediate, from the constant creaking of wood to the crunch of of Vidal tightening his leather? I do not care whether what happened was true or if Ofelia makes it all up to comfort herself and send her soul to her vision of heaven, because that's not the point. Pan's Labyrinth is a tragedy, yes, but also a vibrant examination of how a child processes and internalizes horror and a flawless vision of what that horror might look like when mixed with her innocence and imagination.