Until the 17th Century, fairy tales were not relegated to children. In her book Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales , Mary Louise von Franz has written that it is a function of our age that archetypal material is seen as infantile. Pan’s Labyrinth , a film by the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, is a fairy tale, but it’s not intended for children. It’s been described as "dark," but what genuine fairy tale doesn’t come from the dark of the unconscious? The film practically smells of moist earth and preternaturally powerful essences.
Pan’s Labyrinth is not a razzle-dazzle affair, like much of Tim Burton’s work. It’s closer to Burton’s Sleepy Hollow , and Terry Gilliam’s problematic and under-appreciated The Brother’s Grimm , but without a whisper of comedy. The story takes place in Franco’s Spain, in 1944, after the Civil War. A serious little book-lover, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), arrives at an old mill in the woods with her pregnant mother. Her beloved father, a tailor, has died; she is to meet her stepfather, Capitan Vidal (Sergi López), who is in charge of a garrison fighting the partisans. Over his wife’s pregnant belly, he stretches a possessive, gloved hand in creaking black leather.
As her mother’s health fails, Ofelia gravitates towards a surrogate: Mercedes (Maribel Verdú, of Y Tu Mamá También ), the head of the household, who is secretly spying on the Captain to aid the resistance. The film becomes dual: Mercedes’ battle against the Captain, who is a brutal fascist killer; and Ofelia’s journey into an imaginary, mysterious, dangerous world. The fantasy never overwhelms the "real," but is one with it, a magical-realist braid held together by the powerful performances of Verdú and López.
Like his friend, fellow Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón, maker of Children of Men , del Toro has fashioned a film partly about the masculine choking-off of life, and the feminine principle as life-vivifying. Del Toro has never been ashamed of embracing pop, but here he has drawn from a deeper well, and his film – even better than Cuarón’s – is the one he’s been building up to all along. The hallmarks of his personal vision are here: insects, clockwork and keys, a slit face, portals in stone. These form a melange with fairy tale motifs like hourglasses, poison, forbidden chambers, and mirrors. There are horrors here, too, like a blood feast by a rag-and-bones eater of children, perhaps an aspect of the stepfather-as-monster. These symbols can all be given a Jungian interpretation, but they are better left acting directly on the emotions.
I’ve been vague about the story in part to counteract the film’s irresponsible and misleading trailer, which assumes that the only way to get you to see the film is to reveal its secrets. A similar fate just befell the misunderstood film The Fountain , a morose and beautiful fable that feels related. Pan’s Labyrinth is as fecund as any fantasy since 1998, and it’s now among my favorite films.
This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.