It’s not every fantasy film that comes complete with a scene of a brutal fascist captain sewing his own face up, but that’s what you get in Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since The Devil’s Backbone (better, certainly, than Blade II and Hellboy). It’s a dark fantasy reminding us that the Grimm brothers’ original tales were cautionary and soaked in violence and full of the sort of dirty psychological motivation that Disney flirted with in Snow White and Pinocchio. However this youthful experimentation wasn’t to last, and as with the pot reefer and student politicians, Disney, it seems, never actually inhaled. More’s the pity.
No such cutes or evasiveness here, where things start off like some Iberian Alice in Wonderland suffused with the smell of boot leather and cordite, Ivana Baquero playing Ofelia, an 11-year-old stepdaughter (of said fascist captain) who is informed by a goat-faced faun one night that she is in fact not a poor semi-abandoned waif, but a princess. But to ascend to her underworld throne (if that isn’t a contradiction) she must first complete three tasks. The bonus is that she’ll also be re-united with her real father. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Franco regime has won the civil war but skirmishing continues, and even Ofelia’s household is politically divided. And her mother, heavily, hideously pregnant, is struggling in an airless upstairs room to propel the progeny of the remarkably unpleasant officer out of her uterus.
Menace hangs over everything – even the apparently benign faun comes equipped with horns. Some sort of a devil? An allegory of the choice being offered to the apolitical Spaniard, maybe, who was being asked to judge between the competing claims of falangists and republicans – both of whom have killed people? At another level, Del Toro is part of a trend against realism in recent film-making. The Dogme 95 boys Von Trier (The Idiots), Vinterberg (Festen), Levring (The King Is Alive) and Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune aka Mifune’s Last Song) until this point were one of the few shows in town when it comes to formal experimentation – Dogme 95 films being characterised by lack of artificial light, soundtrack, fancy editing.
Lack is the last thing you’ll get in Pan’s Labyrinth. It is exotic, heady and artful, unafraid of excess, a baroque fantasy informed by the overheated look of films by other Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) but also brushed by an almost extinct strand of European fantasy – Powell and Pressburger in the UK, Cocteau in France, Murnau in Germany, Švankmajer in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic or the work that Francesco Stefani did on the East German TV fantasy The Singing Ringing Tree. It’s this mix of the fantastical, the bloody, the vital and the terrifying that makes Pan’s Labyrinth what it is. And not a whiff of whimsy in sight, praise be.
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© Steve Morrissey 2006