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Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Director: Guillermo del Toro

review by Roger Keen

Guillermo del Toro is one of those artists who support two identities, like Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. As a mainstream SF/ fantasy filmmaker, he has given us Mimic, Blade II and Hellboy, all well crafted but populist pieces. But then while staying within these genre sensibilities, he has also created the much more personal and idiosyncratic Chronos, The Devil's Backbone, and now Pan's Labyrinth (aka: El Laberinto del Fauno), which use his native Spanish and are readily identified as art house fare. Seemingly, playing both sides the commercial/ artistic game has paid off for del Toro, enabling him to steepen his learning curve and develop sufficient clout to deliver, in Pan's Labyrinth, an art film of the most sublime sophistication at every level.

In 1944 Spain, young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), travel to a remote countryside region, joining Carmen's new husband and father-to-be of her child, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal is the commander of the local garrison of Franco's army, dedicated to wiping out the remaining members of a Republican guerrilla force, who continue fighting even though their cause is lost. Ofelia feels trapped by the circumstances of her new life, and immediately gets off on the wrong foot with her stepfather by offering him her left hand to shake. We see what kind of a man Vidal is when he deals out some rough justice to a pair of hunters, wrongly suspected of being rebels. Due to pregnancy complications, Carmen rapidly descends to the status of powerless invalid, and Ofelia is very much left to fend for herself.

Already dedicated to fairy tales, Ofelia discovers artefacts of an ancient labyrinth in the area, and with the aid of portentous insects, which transform into fairies, she enters its caves and tunnels, and elevates them into a fully-fledged other world, presided over by a giant, goat-horned faun (Doug Jones), an equivocal figure, both sinister and avuncular. The Faun - who, incidentally, is never referred to as Pan in the film - tells Ofelia that she is a lost princess in a supernatural kingdom, and to re-attain her birthright she must accomplish three tasks. Seen through a child's eyes, the fantasy world has an Alice In Wonderland/ Peter Pan quality, but far from being an escapist bolthole, Ofelia's labyrinth is fraught with its own difficulties and dangers. She has memorable encounters with a giant, slobbering toad, and the awesomely scary Pale Man (Jones, again), an elongated nightmare bogeyman with loose, wrinkled skin and eyeballs in the palms of his hands.

Meanwhile the real world story is developing with the gripping suspense of the best wartime thrillers. Vidal suspects that the Republicans are being helped by members of the community, and when he captures a fighter after a skirmish, he make full use of his sadistic nature to gain the information he needs. Vidal built up as a figure of hate and fear so well that even incidental scenes of him shaving with a cutthroat razor are overloaded with menace. When Carmen's illness worsens, and the hostility between Vidal and Ofelia becomes more acute, she feels further jeopardised, and the brewing confrontation with the Republicans threatens to shatter everything she has.

What is marvellous about Pan's Labyrinth is that the real and fantasy worlds don't just run parallel, but interlock to form a third level. As it advances, the film becomes a prism, refracting its storylines every which way. Ofelia is just as much of a freedom fighter as the guerrillas in the woods, and her aspirations within the fantasy terms of the labyrinth equal the Republican dream of overthrowing fascist oppression. As with Peter Carter's Heaven in A Matter Of Life And Death, one is left to ponder on just how much external objectivity the labyrinth has - healing magic that Ofelia learns there works in reality. But ultimately it doesn't matter, which makes both films great pieces of storytelling: the consequences of magic are real wherever it comes from.

Like A Matter Of Life And Death, Pan's Labyrinth required heavyweight production values in order to realise its highly specialised vision. Guillermo Navarro's photography is superb, with its swooping camera and richly dark hues, evocative of Spanish masters such as Velasquez and Goya. This painterly texture provides the ideal ground for seamless inclusions and shifts to CGI, such as the fluttering insects, fairies and the dreadful toad. CGI is also used in real world scenes to show mutilations of the flesh, and this too adds to the overall painterly feel, always seeming somehow apt, even though we know it's 'faked'. Similarly, huge credit must go to production designer Eugenio Caballero, whose labyrinth is both earthy and exalted, and ingenious in the way it interfaces with the real world, by means of hidden gateways, trapdoors and apertures in tree trunks.

Notwithstanding the fantasy elements, the film is masterly on the level of pure drama, with especially good performances from Ivana Baquero as the frightened but defiant Ofelia and Sergi Lóez as the brutish Vidal. Maribel Verdú as Mercedes, a servant girl who befriends Ofelia, is also excellent, and indeed every one of the characters feels perfectly cast. In the same way as Pan's Labyrinth doesn't compromise on realizing the fantastical, it pulls no punches in its depiction of wartime horror, with scenes of the most extreme cruelty, all of which are completely justified. Its denouement is both profoundly satisfying and deeply tragic, a tearjerker to rival the best of them.

Films of such unique beauty as Pan's Labyrinth are rare, and when they work as well as this, they become treasures. Following through from The Devil's Backbone, which this latest film closely resembles, del Toro has truly earned a place amongst the greats of contemporary cinema. Pan's Labyrinth is an important film per se, but within the broad genre of dark fantasy, it is a masterpiece, a towering landmark that will undoubtedly loom large over the future and will be much imitated but never equalled.
Pan's Labyrinth

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