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aka - Laberinto Del Fauno, El
USA 2006
Directed by
Guillermo del Toro
119 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
4.5 stars

Pan's Labyrinth

Synopsis: A fanciful and grotesque fantasy entwined around a snapshot of Spain’s 1930s civil war.

Pan’s Labyrinth opens with a voice-over describing an underground realm in which a king awaits the return of his long-lost daughter who had ventured above ground where the sun had blotted out her memory, leaving her spirit to move through the world of humans. This sounds like the beginning of any classic fairy story with its divisions between good and evil and a fall that contains the possibility of a return to grace. But it’s also an allegory for Franco’s Spain, where insurgents hope for a restoration of their own, the two aspects together making for a sadistically brutal yet compellingly imaginative combination.

The story begins with young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), arriving at a rural Spanish military outpost. Ofelia is quickly terrorized by both her new step-father, the Commandant, and the challenges set for her by a faun who appears to her in a mysterious maze. The Commandant is ruthlessly and sadistically attempting to quell local insurgents and his attitude towards his new and ailing wife is also brutal, telling the doctor to save the baby boy rather than the mother should her illness worsen. Meanwhile, Ofelia moves in and out of a fantastic world where the intimidating faun presents her with many challenges all the while promising that he can return her to her rightful place as princess of the underworld.

This remarkable fantasy reverberates in the mind days and weeks after viewing, and questions about what was real and unreal will linger. The screen is alive with Del Toro’s childhood fears, the monstrous things that have leapt and crawled from his sketchbook, and his painstakingly-crafted visual effects and storytelling. While ‘fantasy’ suggests something desirable or even titillating, Ofelia faces frighteningly monstrous beasts - the creaking, ancient faun; the gigantic toad in a sea of millipedes; the menacing stillness of the Pale Man with eyes in his palms. Yet her greatest horror is the Commandant, someone who should have been born with some humanity yet shows none at all.

The cinematography shifts effortlessly between the real and the fantastic, and the special effects are, simply, very special. Doug Jones, the mime artist beneath many films’ prosthetic suits, brings creatures of a terribly inhuman form to life. And the fanciful story is made real by convincing performances by Baquero and Gil together with Sergi López as Capitán Vidal, and Maribel Verdú as the rebellious maid, Mercedes.

Pan’s Labyrinth makes no effort to turn away from the brutality of its story, even if a few cuts or different camera angles could have avoided the R-rating. The Commandant beats a man’s face to a pulp with a bottle, tortures another to a state worse than death. A man has his cheek slashed from mouth to ear and then stitches it himself. Would it have been better to cut a few moments and let teenagers in to see some real fantasy, an alternative to the sanitised antics of Harry Potter? Or does a director need explicit images to make the audience flinch, to make his cinematic vision truly, really, horrible? As it is, be prepared to close your eyes.




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