Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth

*****

Reviewed by: Chris

If you only see one movie this year, go and see Pan's Labyrinth.

1944. Franco's authoritarian fascist regime is a horrid world for a child barely into her teens. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) retreats into herself, finding in her fantasy world the lessons of courage, self-discipline and integrity she will need. With her, we travel beyond outward appearances, through a labyrinth of fears and uncertainties from which Spain will not escape for several decades.

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A dark, brutal fairytale, chillingly set in the real world, but full of hope and warmth, Pan's Labyrinth is a masterpiece of accomplishment.

The film opens with a momentary shot of Ofelia, blood from a nosebleed disappearing as the frames are introduced in reverse. A voiceover takes us back to the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia arrives at a nationalist military base in the woods and is introduced to her stepfather, a vicious commanding officer. She timidly offers him her left hand and he sternly rebukes her. Ofelia's pregnant mother is treated in similar peremptory fashion. He humiliates her at a dinner with the ruling class but, like the almost invisible nurse Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), she has more sense than to complain.

Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez) dispenses arbitrary justice to anyone he suspects is against him. Two suspected rebels caught by his men are summarily executed. Only afterwards is a rabbit discovered in their bag, proving their claim that they were out shooting for the pot.

Ofelia is unwilling to accept this harsh adult world and retreats into a labyrinth, where she meets a strange Pan-like creature, Fauno, who gives her a set of tasks which require her to face her darkest fears. Worried about leaving her mother, who is now very ill, Ofelia is given a mandrake root, a plant that "thinks it is human" - from magical traditions and from Genesis, where Rachel used it to conceive a son; but also known in the real world for its anaesthetic properties.

The story becomes more intense, both outside the labyrinth, where Vidal is busy torturing people, and inside, where Ofelia has to face the Pale Man, a creature that has plucked out its eyes and can only see by placing them in the stigmata on its hands. Around the walls of the room are pictures of people being cast into hell by the Pale Man.

In Pan's Labyrinth, we have a parable about the journey of Spanish society from the Forties to post-Franco, a magical fairytale of stunning beauty, a story of the struggle and character development of a child on the edge of puberty against a backdrop of civil war. That these strands are welded seamlessly together in a multi-ayeredl narrative is a remarkable achievement and a thrilling experience. The sheer artistry recalls Cocteau's La Belle Et La Bete. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro sweeps us into a dreamlike, poetic vision, with a minimum of CGI and a grasp of dialogue that seems almost transcendental.

The editing is crisp, without a single frame wasted. Battle scenes are realistic and bloody, reminding us that this is no fairytale for children. Rich colours and unflinching camerawork keep us rooted in the experience, whether it is Ofelia crawling face down in the mud and covered with insects, or a hapless victim having his nose smashed in by El Capitan. Yet, the scenes of tenderness and beauty are equally moving - Ofelia retreating into her mother's arms, a servant at the camp powerless to help the Republican she loves, a doctor performing an act of mercy, or the splendour of Ofelia's inner aspirations.

I suspect Pan's Labyrinth will reward repeated viewing.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2006
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In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a lonely girl encounters a mysterious faun.
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Read more Pan's Labyrinth reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****
Moominkat ****
Nick Da Costa ****

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writer: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ariadna Gil, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo, César Vea, Roger Casamajor, Ivan Massagué, Gonzalo Uriarte

Year: 2006

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Mexico, Spain, US

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