Okay, that's it, I've seen every movie from 2006 that I needed to see. It took PAN'S LABYRINTH a while to make it to Columbia, and I saw the very first preview showing at my local art house. It's good to get these things out of the way early. I have no idea how actual film critics manage to compile Top Ten lists before the end of the year.
PAN'S LABYRINTH is more dramatic and powerful than one would anticipate; it is a film that, while about children and their belief in magic and while rich in fairy tale imagery, cannot be said to be for children. It is graphic, and brutal, and tragic. It is also enchanting, and magical, and uplifting. It works on two main levels, and several sublevels. And a ground floor with a wonderfully decorated lobby. Maybe I'm getting overly cute with the metaphor there, but you gotta keep it fresh. The point is, it's a good movie.
The film starts in Spain, in 1944. The Spanish Civil War is effectively over, and General Franco's fascist army has sent the freedom fighters to the hills, literally. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl, comes up to the northern mountains with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to meet her stepfather (Sergi López), a captain in Franco's army who wants to be present at the birth of his son. (He is certain the child will be male.) Outside the small mansion where they stay is an old ruined labyrinth. The first night, a fairy visits Ofelia and lures her to the labyrinth, where a large and fearsome faun (Doug Jones) confronts her. He says she is the reincarnation of a princess from the Underworld who long ago travelled to the world of mortals and died, and that the time for her to return to her people is at hand. Before the next full moon, she must perform three tasks, which will be revealed to her over time. Meanwhile, the housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the local doctor (Álex Angulo) are both covertly helping the rebels, who are planning an assault on the house, and the captain, in addition to eagerly anticipating the birth of his robust male heir, is downright giddy at the prospect of a glorious final victory. This does not bode well for anyone. And then Ofelia's mother gets sick.
Much of the film is a slow buildup of tension; there is a subtle feeling that things are going to get worse, and it isn't really until the last thirty minutes that the storm breaks. Slowly, the fighting between the fascists and rebels intensifies, and slowly, Ofelia's quest becomes harder and more dangerous, and we begin to wonder whether it really is just a child's fantasy. The film is placed firmly in the genre of magic realism, and as such there is no clear demarcation between the real and the unreal, nor is it ultimately profitable to look for such (though you can pick up on a couple of hints.) Our sojourns into the fantastic are relatively brief, but shot in a way that blends in with the less-fantastic segments, while still being memorably imaginative (the second task featuring a truly horrific child-eating monster, also played by Jones; it's interesting how rarely children actually come to harm in adult horror films, whereas kids have a much easier time imagining monsters specifically coming after them.) For much of the time we are distracted by the real skullduggery and carnage of the last throes of Spain's Civil War, and the personal dramas of the people involved. This is a story with many wrinkles.
Visually the film is excellent- Del Toro has a gift for rich, earthy visuals, and the use of color is also effective in smoothing the transition from the magic to the mundane and back again. What we see of the magical realm makes us wish for more, but the "real" vistas are often equally impressive. The action is intense and highly visceral, and at times strangely exhilirating (perhaps capturing a bit of the Captain's mania for us.) Despite the slow pace, this is a gripping picture; there's always something to be worried about.
Then there is the ending, which may be the most powerful of any film this year. I do not feel like spoiling it, but there's not much to say otherwise. But it elevates the experience like nothing else could; it is poetic, shocking, and gentle, even hopeful. There are a number of ways of interpreting it, and the director's is on record for those who care to look. Whatever its precise meaning, it suits everything that went before perfectly. There is even something of a Christian allegory. Suffice it to say, the film is about finding the right path to walk in a corrupted and dying land. When that path is discovered, it is a tearjerking sight.
PAN'S LABYRINTH is an emotional experience above all else, but it has its intellectual side too. There is an ambiguity to the characters and their motives and behavior; the Captain, though evil, has a set of ideals that would be admirable if we did not see what they lead him to. The freedom fighters must make their own moral compromises at times; obviously they're taking a path of violence, but they remain noble in spite of it. Ofelia's mother has perhaps compromised by marrying the Captain to begin with, but as she explains, a woman grows tired of being alone.
And so the film works on levels religious, political, mythical, and personal, deftly intertwining these things while still feeling coherent. I confess I have only seen one other film by Del Toro, that being HELLBOY, which was based on the comic book; it was very well done in itself, but here we see Del Toro's own imagination fully at work, linking so many things together in a unique moral fable that says a lot without preaching it. This is one of the best films of the year.