Intense. Brutal. Vivid. Unforgettable.
All of these terms accurately describe Guillermo del Torro's El Laberinto del Fauno, released as Pan's Labyrinth in English. The story, set at the end of the Second World War in Spain, centres around Ofelia, a girl young enough to believe in fairies and old enough to see the danger in her situation. She and her pregnant mother have been brought to live in an old mill in the mountains of rural Spain. It is the base of operations for her stepfather, Captain Vidal, in his fight against the guerilla fighters living in the mountains. The Captain's housekeeper, Mercedes keeps a watchful eye on Ofelia, especially after her mother is confined to bedrest, but it is she who tells Ofelia that the ancient, crumbling labyrinth in the nearby woods has always been there.
The trailers, posters and promotional material all focus on the fantasy side of this film and I worry that some viewers will go in with unfair expectations. While Ofelia does escape into the world of the Labyrinth, she is also firmly rooted in the real, violent, world at war. Writer/director del Torro neither glorifies nor downplays the violence between the soldiers and the guerillas and it is some of these scenes, more than the fantasy sequences, that are burned into my brain with such clarity. There were audible gasps from the audience around me through some of these same scenes.
Pan's Labyrinth is, in the end, a tragedy in the truest sense; there are many deaths but in the end, there is still hope. The theme of destiny runs throughout each of the storylines from the way Ofelia's mother met the Captain to the lives of the guerillas to Ofelia's connection with the Labyrinth.
The creatures of the Labyrinth are at once otherworldly and also completely organic. The centerpice -- the title character -- is Pan, but there are other creatures lurking in and around the Labyrinth, too. Some seem to be entirely digital, others only partly so, but all fit perfectly into the surroundings. Pan is brought to life by two men: actor Doug Jones in an elaborate costume and makeup, plus a pupeteer who manipulates the upper facial features. Considering the dark, creepy look of the fantasy world and the realism of its creatures, it is no surprise that both Best Makeup and Best Art Direction are among the six Academy Award® nominations received.
I hope that people will see this film, not for the promise of a Jim-Henson like world, but for the dark, tragic, memorable film that it is. I hope, too, that the beauty of the film transcends its subtitles (though it is a shame at times to look away from the screen to read them) to find a large international audience.