This wildly imaginative fabulist fable from Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro works as a companion piece to his earlier excellent Spanish language ghost story, The Devil’s Backbone. Like that film, Pan’s Labyrinth locates supernatural events within the grimly realistic milieu of Spain’s Civil War, here seen in its closing stages. And once again the protagonist is an innocent child, in this case a daydreaming young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero).
As the film opens, Ofelia and her pregnant and unwell mother arrive in the country’s mountainous northern region to join her new stepfather, a cruel captain in Franco’s army named Vidal (Sergi López). With her mother bedridden and her stepfather busy snuffing out pockets of resistance, Ofelia is left to her own devices. She soon discovers a subterranean world populated by various fairytale creatures, including a fearsome faun who tells the girl that she is, in fact, a princess and that she must complete three tasks in order to return to her home.
The contrast between these two worlds is great, and the film underscores that by treating each in very different ways. While some aspects of the subterranean one are frightening (one of Ofelia’s tasks is to steal a dagger from a gruesome cyclopean giant that might have been dreamed up by Clive Books of Blood Barker), the colourful fairytale realm, with its animatronics monsters, otherwise resembles the similarly titled Jim Henson children’s fantasy, Labyrinth. It’s above ground, however, where the real terrors lie. Vidal’s war against the resistance fighters sees him smash a prisoner’s nose flat with a wine bottle and torture another almost to death, and in one particular nasty scene Vidal himself has his cheek slit from mouth to ear. Stomach-churningly graphic, these sections of the film play like a horror movie.
The tonal shifts are very jarring, and the switch between children’s film and horror movie a little heavy-handed. But the film works well as an analogy to life in Spain during Franco’s repressive regime and when the country was liberated from it. Beyond that, Pan’s Labyrinth powerfully illustrates the point that the real world is more horrifying than any imagined one. Del Toro should be applauded for his clarity of vision.
Cameo, Edinburgh and selected release from Fri 24 Nov.