Without much premeditation, and without having read anything about the film, and because I received an email on Friday from a friend who urged me to see it, I pretty much stopped everything I was doing yesterday afternoon [Sunday] and drove to the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis to see the new film by Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth. The movie, I must warn everyone, in addition to being breathtakingly beautiful and intensely compelling as a narrative, is also unremittingly violent and bleak, and it ends on a devestating note that is at once horrible and somehow spiritually redemptive [but only if you believe human sacrifice can be redemptive--I have my doubts, and it is this point, in particular, that I thought might be worth debating here in relation to the film].
I don't want to give too much away regarding the plot, but suffice to say that the main narrative is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and that it concerns a young girl, Ofelia, who is uprooted, with her pregnant mother, to a rural military outpost commanded by her new stepfather, Captain Vidal. Throughout the movie, Ofelia travels back and forth between the real world, which is dominated by the sadism of her stepfather and his soldiers, and the world underneath the labyrinth gardens adjacent to the abandoned mill in which Captain Vidal has made his headquarters. Ofelia is a child who loves magical fables, and the conceit of the sub-story of the film, which is really a self-generated narrative on Ofelia's part, is that Ofelia's body contains the soul of the former princess of the world underneath the labyrinth gardens and in order to return there [and to her real father], and to also return that world, now a kind of wasteland, to its former golden glory, there are certain tasks she must perform. Suffice to say that the movie purposefully contrasts the cruelty and horror and human "monsters" of the world above the gardens with the monsters and terrors of the world below--a world which, nevertheless, provides refuge for Ofelia from the sorrows of her life in the mill.
Although this movie encloses, as it were, a story both for and about children [for it also concerns Ofelia's unborn brother], no child under ten or so should see the movie, as it is too dark and the violence depicted is extremely disturbing. But everyone else should see this movie. It is a parable for our times, to be sure, and a highly moving yet discomfiting one at that. As to why he would purposefully bring together the magical world of childhood "fairy" fantasy with the stark reality of Spanish history under Franco, de Toro has said, "For me, facism is a representation of the ultimate horror and it is, in this sense, an ideal concept through which to tell a fairy tale aimed at adults. Because facism is first and foremost a perversion of innocence, and thus of childhood."
Because del Toro rigorously designed his underworld and its creatures on classical models, readers of this blog should be very interested in the film. They should also be interested to see it, I think, given this comment from del Toro about the magical world he created in his film: "I wanted all the creatures to have an air of menace. Fantasy is not an escape for Ofelia but a dark refuge. There is something vaguely embryonic about all the magic environments because I believe that fairy tales are ultimately about two things: facing the dragon or climbing back to our world inside."
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Viewing it was an upsetting, yet transformative experience, and speaks to the power of art in our times.