RogerBW's Blog

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) 16 October 2022

2006 SF action, dir. Guillermo del Toro, Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdú: IMDb / allmovie. As the Spanish Civil War grinds to an end, a woman goes to live with her new husband, taking her daughter with her. But there is dark wonder behind every tree.

I think for me this is peak interesting del Toro. Yes, there would be Pacific Rim, but I've seen the original kaiju films; there's Crimson Peak, but it's just another gothic. This was his last film in Spanish, and I think like John Woo he got ground down by Hollywood until his spark of originality had been sucked dry.

Mind you, the English title is the first problem. This is nothing to do with Pan in the sense of Greek mythology, nor even Machen; there's a faun ("El laberinto del fauno" is the original title) but it's certainly not in charge of things.

But what we do get, and which very few filmmakers get right, is an honest child's viewpoint. Yes, Ofelia is aware that Captain Vidal, her new stepfather, is a bad guy; but she doesn't understand why specifically, or why her (pregnant, widowed) mother has ended up married to him anyway. It's a combination of understanding but lack of knowledge which too often gets flattened into the generic child, and its handling here reminded me of how Diana Wynne Jones did it: we the audience can read between the lines and work out some of the things the child doesn't yet understand.

Where the film does have problems, I think, is that the "outside" story, of cruel Captain Vidal and the maquis both in the countryside and within his household, is at risk of dominating the "inside" story of Ofelia and her status as a reborn fairy princess. The overt fantasy sequences are effective, but very short. And del Toro's insistence on trying to keep things ambiguous, to keep the viewer wondering whether Ofelia's experiences with fantasy are "real" or just something she's imagining, while it may please some arthouse viewers means that the dangerous things of fantasy can never properly reach out and blend with the outside story's own dangers.

Which means, for example, that I notice that what should be the focal action of the whole story, Ofelia's offering her own blood in place of her baby brother's for the final "blood of an innocent" task, does not in fact show her inventiveness or moral courage at all, even though she's praised for it: all she does is say "no, I'll give all this up to keep my brother safe", then gets shot, and completely accidentally drip her blood down the pit. There are two stories here, on the one hand the rejection of fantasy and the acceptance of growing up, on the other hand the acceptance of fantasy and escape from an intolerable world, and neither of them is allowed to reach a satisfying conclusion.

That's a pity, because the rest is lovely. Colour grading is used with subtlety; sound effects are sometimes a bit much but work well to establish the atmosphere of the house; the monsters are, well, viscerally impressive at least. The point that does get well made is that Ofelia has to disobey everyone, even those who have her best interests at heart.

Not without flaws – I'm not sure any film is – but a very effective piece even so.

If you want more of my witterings, you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:07am on 16 October 2022

    Yeah, this film promised so much and yet didn't quite deliver on its promise.

    I'm not sure I'd agree with you on why or how that happened, and we certainly differ on his other work, but we came to the same conclusion, a flawed film.

    Pity really, it made the film far more disappointing watch.

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