The Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro has two careers. In Hollywood, he makes diverting but ultimately callow fare like Blade II and Hellboy. Back home, he crafts dark, thoughtful fables like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and now Pan’s Labyrinth. I much prefer del Toro’s Mexican work, away from Hollywood bean-counters who would insist on stripping the fairy-tale illogic from his films. “What’s the deal with all the fascists?” they might say. “Can’t the thing with eyes in his palms be nice? And why does it have to be in Spanish?”
Set after the Spanish Civil War, when Franco was sending troops into the hills to smoke out any remaining rebels, Pan’s Labyrinth presents humanity at its cruellest and kindest. This is a world in which a little girl can stick a living mandrake root in a bowl of milk, put it under her ailing mother’s bed, and feed it with her own blood so that her mom can get better. It is also a world in which a sadistic captain shows a prospective torture victim which tools he plans to use, and at which point in the proceedings his victim’s confession will finally be convincing. Crudely put, Pan’s Labyrinth is Schindler’s List meets MirrorMask, in which the reality an imaginative girl seeks to escape through fantasy is harsh and foul, and sometimes the fantasy is, too.
Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is pregnant with the child of the aforementioned sadist, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who has insisted that she be delivered to the mill he and his men are protecting. Carmen brings her daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a 12-year-old girl from Carmen’s previous marriage to a now-deceased tailor. Ofelia hates her stepfather and hates that her beloved mother is stuck with him, but she loves her future brother, who hears Ofelia’s stories in the womb. Ofelia encounters some buzzing insectoid creatures, who soon resolve themselves into fairies out of one of Ofelia’s books, and eventually they lead her into an enchanted labyrinth ruled by a growling faun. Here she receives three tasks, as if her life weren’t complicated enough.
Del Toro constructs Pan’s Labyrinth as two states of being, not always in opposition. The various creatures Ofelia meets, especially the ghastly one sitting at a banquet table just waiting for a hungry little girl to steal some grapes, are meant to be as terrifying as the ruthless fascist soldiers. Women are pushed around by males both human and inhuman. There’s a sliver of hope in Captain Vidal’s housekeeper Mercedes (the excellent Maribel Verdú, from Y Tu Mamá Tambien), whose sympathy lies with the rebels. Is Ofelia’s fantasy world real, or just in her head? It’s real to her, and it’s made real to us by virtue of its very unpleasantness. This is a fantasia only a traumatized little girl — or a director fascinated with monsters with horns and monsters in jackboots — could weave.
The movie will probably strike some viewers as needlessly ugly and violent. I suppose we really didn’t need the scene of a man’s mouth widened by a knife, and the subsequent scene wherein he stitches the wound in horror-movie close-up, not to mention the detail of his sipping a shot of whiskey that leaks out. Some of Pan’s Labyrinth is almost punitively painful; these Mexican directors, like Alfonso Cuarón in Children of Men and Alejandro González Iñárritu in Babel, spray the camera lens with gore (literally, in Cuarón’s case) in the sanguinary Catholic tradition of a lot of Mexican art. Del Toro’s fairy tales are red in tooth and claw; those who seek fizzier, stomach-calming seltzer at the movies are advised to look elsewhere. Others, like me, will surrender gratefully to the black and bloody enchantment.