Movie Review: El laberinto del fauno

A week ago Friday Susan and I returned to the Somerville Theater to see El laberinto del fauno (2006) or it’s English title Pan’s Labyrinth (which is odd since Pan does not appear in this film). This movie is a wonderful fantasy/drama that is worthy of all the accolades it is receiving.

I was surprised to learn that the director Guillermo del Toro (which is my elementary Spanish is correct means William the Bull) is Mexican, not Spanish. This shouldn’t be surprising since many an American director has set a film in Europe, but this film feels steeped in Spanish history and culture. Also, del Toro generally directs horror and comic book movies (like Hellboy and Blade II) so this is a more artistic venture.

It reminds me in some ways of the magical realist style of the films of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeune, especially The City of Lost Children. Other similarities include:

  • Both films feature a strong performance by a young actress as a lead character: Judith Vittet at Miette in The City of Lost Children and Ivana Baquero as Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • In The City of Lost Children American actor Ron Perleman played the strongman One even though he did not speak French. In Pan’s Labyrinth American actor Doug Jones plays the Faun and the Pale Man after teaching himself Spanish to play the part.

Despite the similarities, Pan’s Labyrinth is a unique and imaginative film that tells two intertwining stories. The first is the story of Ofelia, a girl who may the reincarnation of a fairy princess who must perform three tasks before the full moon to prove her essence is intact. The other story is about the after effects of the Spanish Civil War in which Republican partisans are waging a guerrilla campaign in the mountains and a division of Franco’s army has been sent to fortify an old mill in an effort to stop the uprising. Contrary to my expectations the Spanish Civil War story proved to be more gory and disturbing than the phantasmagoric creatures of fantasy story.  Of course this is the same war that brought us “Guernica” and other disturbing art works by Pablo Picasso.

The film begins with Ofelia accompanying her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to the mill. Much to Ofelia’s disappointment, her mother has remarried to the fussy and cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi López) a man obsessed with his legacy, especially the son Carmen is carrying. And fitingly to the fairy tale aspect of the story, he is an evil stepfather as opposed to the typical evil stepmother (Susan pointed this out to me). It is at the hands of Captain Vidal that we see many disturbing acts of violence and torture as he viciously attempts to eradicate the Republican faction.

On the way to the mill, Ofelia recognizes a stick insect/mantis creature as a fairy, and eventually this fairy leads her into a labyrinth where she meets the Faun. He is a creature both frightening and comforting and not entirely trustworthy. The Faun gives Ofelia three tasks to prove she’s not lost her essence. The first of which she accomplishes with ease although she destroys her new dress in the process. The second adventure is more trying as Ofelia encounters the Pale Man, a kind of bogeyman with great hand-eye coordination. I shan’t give away the third task as that is the climax of the film.

Meanwhile back at the mill, things are not going well. Carmen’s pregnancy is killing her and Vidal is no help as he only cares about a healthy heir. Among the Captain’s staff is a housekeeper named Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) who takes on the role of surrogate mother for Ofelia. Mercedes is also a spy for the Republicans led by her brother, Pedro.

The two storylines come together for a bloody yet inspiring finale. I really enjoyed (if that’s the right word) this well-crafted, well-acted, and well-written film and certainly will watch it again.

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: El laberinto del fauno

  1. What I thought was also fitting was there is no direct proof in the civil war plot that the fairy plot is real. It could all be in the complex imagination of the child. Excellent movie–beautifully textured and told.


  2. Good point. If the fairies are only in Ofelia’s imagination, then the ending is far more tragic. I think I prefer to believe in the fairy story for that reason alone.


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