Pan’s Labyrinth

| December 10, 2006

Not your average Disney fantasy (although Disney could trade in dark when needed, but softly), director Guillermo del Toro’s visual marvel is an inquiry into the use (and misuse) of the imagination as both salvation and destructive, abjectly inefficient flight and retreat from direct confrontation with present circumstance. Dreamy, bookish Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, concentrated and eerily self-possessed) journeys to the wooded countryside with her weary, impregnated mother to take up family with the nasty and evil Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, full of dangerous, unstable self-loathing), a vicious Fascist officer empowered by Franco’s new regime to root out and destroy a team of guerrilla warriors based in the surrounding hills (the setting is Spain circa 1944, just following the Civil War). He dispatches his duties with venomous aplomb, and there’s a strong suggestion that he operates under a feverish obsession to prove himself worthy of his father’s heroic legacy, a goal from which he privately fears he falls far short. A disquieting question lingers over his acquirement of Ofelia’s mother; dark tales of murder and assault that go unmentioned. It’s clear that his interests are less involved with his wife’s or step-daughter’s health and well-being, and solely concentrated on the safe birth of his son, a chance to carry on his diseased legacy. The closest the captain gets to ever revealing himself is in front of his shaving mirror when for a moment his uneasy play with the straight razor presages what he may think of his own misery and entrapment.
Ofelia is drawn steadily into a secret world of myth and mystery, she possibly being the embodiment of an estranged princess from a subterranean kingdom, cast out of her realm when her curiosity of the human surface world proved too strong a desire. Even before arriving at the Captain’s house, Ofelia encounters a messenger from the fanciful world in the form of a fairy, which returns to her once she is settled in her new room, leading her to the elaborate labyrinth on the back of the property, wherein Ofelia meets up with the simultaneously menacing and avuncular faun-like creature who assigns her three tasks to accomplish before she can return to the paradisiacal realm, which take on disturbing reflections of the sadism and viciousness around her. Ofelia is incapable of adjusting to, or surviving, the Captain’s rough, unmerciful environs, so her surrender to this magisterial fantasia is understandable, del Toro is quite right to keep unclear the validity of Ofelia’s alternative reality, as it deepens a viewer’s sympathy for this young girl caught up in inescapably awful circumstances-to possess sensitivity in such an atmosphere is a grave disadvantage.
An obstinate allegiance to a particular vision can also be a misfortune, as it denies the very immediate threat of a possibly stronger force just in front of you. I’m all for escape valves to distance yourself from discomfort and horror, but total absorption may prove fatal, as it denies the obvious. The Captain’s home is full of intrigue and machinations of all sorts, and some do not have the luxury of the outsider, as their involvement in the immediate political crisis insists that they see clearly and cogently-or risk quick death. Ofelia’s closest ally in the home is the fierce housemaid Mercedes (Maribel Verdu, seething with impotent rage and buried despair). At a moment of crisis, however, Ofelia is capable of the most esteemed and elevated of human characteristics, although this instance of sure sight is not enough to relinquish her embrace of her chosen world-and all its consequences.
Del Toro’s skill is in exploring the tensions between fantasy and reality, the need each fulfils in the other, the dangers in too close an alignment with either. Some of the people in the film have been gravely robbed of the ability to even for a moment indulge in whimsy, while others annihilate themselves by indulging excessively in it. Certainly in this case the harsh reality of existence for the freedom fighters in the forsaken hills trumps completely what horrors and monsters may lurk in the pagan caverns within the grounds of the estate. And poor little Ofelia joins Alice and a proud tradition of other afflicted young women as they attempt to negotiate the treacherous terrain of adolescence and the dangers of the adult world on their way to senses of themselves, trying their best to keep their feet this side of the slippery slope.

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