Fact and fiction
Pan’s Labyrinth wraps fantasy around the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War
It’s a magical fairy tale and special-effects fantasy with a starkly realistic streak of modern history running through it. Its central figure is a bright, adventurous 10-year-old named Ofelia who plunges into a mythical quest in the fantastic underworld that she begins to discover just as she and her mother move into an old mill that is also the military headquarters of her new stepfather.
The present-tense setting is Spain in 1944 and the prolonged aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and the stepfather is one Capt. Vidal, a cruel tyrant who is charged with rounding up remnants of the resistance to Franco’s fascism in a remote rural area. Ofelia’s magical journey includes the meeting of three challenges set for her by Pan, the faun she encounters in her underworld labyrinth, but she also faces a real-world challenge with a fairy-tale tinge to it—dealing with the fearsome Capt. Vidal.
Vidal and the craftily rebellious housemaid Mercedes are central figures in the film, but writer-director Guillermo del Toro does not treat Ofelia’s mythical adventures as mere escapist fantasy. The film opens on a note of fairy tale and myth, before sliding into the realities of Spain in 1944, and later on the Vidal part of the story begins to take on elements of fairy tales in their older and most ferocious mode. Eventually, Ofelia’s fantastic journey has her facing up, credibly, to some of the harshest of adult realities and moral quandaries.
Pan’s Labyrinth generates a fairy-tale sense of wonder throughout, but it’s never merely childish. Indeed, the grimness of its oozy underworld encounters and the savagery of Vidal’s violence (for which he will be repaid in kind) provide ample reason for its “R” rating. And it’s very much to the production’s credit that its fairy tale mystique has sufficient tough-mindedness to prevail amid the story’s assorted forays into horror-film territory.
Ivana Baquero’s superb combination of innocence and fortitude in the role of Ofelia is central to the film’s surprising emotional power. No less crucial is Maribel Verdú (last seen in Y Tu Mamá También) who brings fiery intensity and a charged stoicism to the role of Mercedes, Ofelia’s main above-ground mentor.
And the best performance in the film is that of Sergi López, who renders the patently evil Capt. Vidal as life-size villain and larger-than-life ogre, simultaneously. The mime Doug Jones is a distinctive presence in two memorable roles—the surreal Pale Man and the eponymous Pan.