Pan’s Labyrinth is debatably Guillermo del Toro’s (Hell Boy) greatest work. But, surprisingly, I hadn’t watched it until this fall after seeing his new movie The Shape of Water at the Toronto International Film Festival. And, even after hearing about its brilliance for so many years, I realized that it was a good idea that I waited.
This is simply because I am so easily terrified by even a hint of horror on screen. No, seriously. I couldn’t even watch Supernatural episodes without hiding under the covers. Pan’s Labyrinth is not a horror film by any means, but it’s majorly unsettling and twisted. I wanted to hide multiple times. But this time I couldn’t look away. It is mesmerizing and excruciatingly beautiful.
An old labyrinth is the center around which little Ofelia’s (Ivana Banquero, The New Daughter) dire reality becomes entwined with fairy tale. She discovers the labyrinth when she moves with her pregnant mother to live on a military base in Falangist Spain in 1944 with the menacing Captain Vidal (Sergi López, Dirty Pretty Things), her new stepfather. At the center of the labyrinth, Ofelia meets an old faun (Doug Jones, Hell Boy, The Shape of Water), a Greek mythological creature, with the body and head of a man, but legs and spiraling horns of a goat.
The faun spins a tale for her. He has been searching for her through the centuries. She is the lost princess of the Underworld. Before returning to her kingdom, she must perform three tasks to prove her royal heritage. In the unfolding events, Ofelia’s fairy tale is ensnared with reality. Danger lurks both in the fantastical and the mundane.
A contrast in the vivid color which paints Ofelia’s interactions with mythical creatures and the colder scenes of the “real world” distinguishes fantasy from reality. But Pan’s Labyrinth plays with light and dark imagery to create a dizzying vividness throughout. Watching each frame is like being sucked into a Goya painting. None of it, the set nor the filming, is perfect or neat. It’s bewildering, intense, and rich. I was totally immersed.
Ofelia’s desire for an escape was heartbreaking. But, just maybe, her enchanted world is more than imagination. The message of Pan’s Labyrinth is surprisingly simple. There is magic, love, and strength hidden even in the coldest bits of our realities. For me, a mere mortal with no mythical heritage to escape to, (only covers to hide under), Del Toro has offered a glimmer of hope.