Last night we went to see Pan’s Labyrinth, the (sort of) fantasy film by directory Gullermo del Toro (Hellboy). It’s in Spanish with subtitles, and was originally titled The Faun’s Labyrinth, but the title was changed for the English version for unknown reasons.
The story is fairly simple: Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a girl about 10 years old in 1944 Fascist Spain. Her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) married Captain Vidal (Sergi López) and is pregnant with the Captain’s son. Carmen and Ofelia move to the Captain’s country house where he is entrenched in fighting the socialist rebels. Ofelia is befriended by the Captain’s aide, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú).
In the country, Ofelia is contacted by a mantis who turns out to be a faerie, and which takes her into a hole in the middle of a nearby ruined labyrinth, where she meets a faun (Doug Jones) who tells her that she is the reincarnation of the Princess Moanna of an underground kingdom, and that she must perform three tasks before the full moon in order to return to her kingdom. He gives her a book which reveals its pages as she accomplishes each task, but finds that her tasks considerably disrupt her comfort and standing in the Captain’s camp.
I knew going in that this would be a dark film, that it would contrast its fantastic elements with a full-on war, but it greatly exceeded my expectations in its darkness and its graphic brutality: The Captain is a hard, cold, calculating man, who takes pride in the impending birth of his son, but has little use for anyone else who can’t help him in his task of eliminating the rebels. He beats, kills and tortures people and many of these scenes are vividly depicted. The fantasy scenes also contain graphic violence at times, and slimy yuckiness at other times, so there’s really little respite.
I thought this brutality made the film a lot less enjoyable than it might have been, as I periodically winced or turned away when something espcially nasty happened, which put me on my guard and made it difficult to enjoy the rest of the film once I realized that was how it was going to be.
There is some method to this madness, as the film leaves ambiguous whether Ofelia’s adventures with the faun are real, or simply he product of her imagination: She might be so horrified by what’s happening around her that she might be imagining the adventures as a form of escape (for example). So the point might be that this is an extreme which war drives people (children) to. While I can understand this, I still think the brutality could have been handled less graphically, cutting away rather than focusing on it (as happens when one person has his face beaten in with a bottle, for instance – only one example among many in this film).
The real disappointment, I think, is that the film opens with such promise of the wonders of a serious fantasy (as opposed to a light Hollywood fantasy), before it turns violent and gross. There are aspects of the film which are fascinating even though they’re terrifying: The scene with Ofelia stealing from the dining hall of the Pale Man (who is a really cool-looking monster, as you can see from photos here and here) is tense, arresting, and visually fantastic. But there’s frustratingly little of it, the film’s sense of wonder is just too rarely revealed to carry the day.
So while the acting is good and the story interesting, I can’t really recommend Pan’s Labyrinth. I think it was working at cross purposes with the film I really wanted to see, and consequently I was disappointed in it. Oddly, the film it most reminds me of – mainly in its serious tone and dark visuals (not to mention very similar opening scene) – is Memento, but the latter is a much better film (despite a few squidgy moments of its own) because it manages to be horrifying in a more thoughtful way, and ultimately it’s the more rewarding of the two.