Pan's Labyrinth

Release date: 21st May 2007
Certificate: 15
Running time: 119 mins
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones
Genre: Fantasy/Drama/Thriller
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD
Country: Spain/Mexico

Pan’s Labyrinth, is often dubbed by del Toro the natural sequel to The Devil’s Backbone, his film of 2001. The focus is on the same historical period only five years later, when the results of Franco’s ascent to power are in effect.

Set in 1944 in Franco’s new Spanish State, Pan’s Labyrinth is the story of 11-year-old Ofelia (Baquero). With her father dead, she and her heavily pregnant mother Carmen are moving to the rural military camp where her new step father Captain Vidal has been sent. Vidal is there with his men - their purpose: to obliterate the resistance residing in the hills above the Mill.  Ofelia meets a faun in the labyrinth who charges her with three tasks to prove that she is the princess in the story he has told her of. As the tasks progress, Ofelia’s fantasy world - like her reality - becomes more and more brutal. One it would appear is directly proportional to the other, as events unfold and things spiral out of control…

Del Toro visually colours two worlds in sharp juxtaposition. The world of Ofelia’s reality is full of blue and grey hues; the light seems as if the sky is always overcast. The interior is full of stark cold colouring, illustrative of the lack of warmth within its walls. The contrast is seen in Ofelia’s fantasy world. The richness of the colour which surrounds her in each of her tasks is a massive change from her reality. In the second task, the sumptuous surroundings of The Pale Man’s dwelling, the sinew red of the walls, the multicoloured feast, and the lustrous hue which emanates from the fireplace emphasises the fairytale quality of this fantasy world.

Del Toro also utilises darkness to great effect. He draws upon a child’s fear of the as the faun appears from the blackness at the end of Ofelia’s room, unheard and previously unseen. It emphasises the Greek mythology he has drawn upon where fauns are untrustworthy (reiterated by the words of Mercedes the housekeeper). The fairytale is more evocative of the Brothers Grimm than Disney, with task two drawing heavily on their Hansel & Gretel.

The camera direction is understated, and is often interspersed between wide shots and close ups, with occasional cut-ins when Ofelia refers to her book. So much occurs throughout the film, the simplicity of the shots allows the audience to witness the scale of the action without the distraction of constantly changing perspective.  The cinematography is striking. One particularly poignant scene shows Ofelia and her ill mother lying on a bed, with Ofelia telling her unborn brother a story to soothe him. The camera frames Ofelia’s head resting on her mother’s stomach and moves down seemingly showing the foetus. Around it swirl the images of the story. Such focus on the visual impact of storytelling is at the fore early in the film, allowing it to be subsequently revisited throughout.

Many of the plaudits for the film have been for the visuals it employs. Although these are absolutely mesmerising, and often breathtaking, the film is more than just the sum of its effects. The collective cast performance is exceptionally strong. Baquero as Ofelia is outstanding. The 11-year-old delivers a performance that fully embraces her character’s fractured maturity. She is balanced on a knife edge between the child she wishes to remain - clutching her story books, trying to regress into the innocence of previous years - and the adult she is being forced to become due to her circumstances. Lopez, as the sadistic, deeply unpleasant Vidal, is also wonderfully pitched. The extent of his sociopathic tendencies is glimpsed at with small moments, well-judged by both himself and del Toro. A special mention must be given to del Toro favourite Doug Jones. Playing the faun and The Pale Man, his movement and ability is still exceptional even under makeup. His work on dialect and accent may have been futile, as he was dubbed, but his performance produced the memorable moments in the film.

The sound in the film is primarily diegetic, creating immediacy between the audience and the characters. The audience hears Vidal’s razor as it glides along his face, even the creak of his gloves. The most haunting element of the soundtrack was Mercedes humming a lullaby, the words to which she had long forgotten. The film opens with this non-diegetic sound and utilises it throughout, it works very effectively, emphasising the dreamlike ethereal beauty much of the film has.

Pan’s Labyrinth shows the mindscape of an isolated child, her mother is physically taken from her, her father dead and her new step-father is a brutally savage man who sees her as an inconvenience; wanting only the son he believes resides in her mother’s stomach. The fantasy world which she creates becomes a place of refuge where she convinces herself she is someone else. Del Toro’s film shows the aching sadness of a child who has found herself alone and seemingly unwanted against the backdrop of visceral violence which encroaches upon her life.   Pan’s Labyrinth is a cinematic gem which should be appreciated for its distinctive visual quality and del Toro’s undeniable skill as a storyteller, mixing violence, visceral realism, fantasy and isolation to create a poignant story of what it is to believe.

Reviewed by Dawn H.


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