cinema, Column article, Film, Film Review

DVD PICK: Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

If you are wondering what old DVD film to watch, I highly recommend Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

QUANTUM CINEMA : by  Jamal Ashley Abbas

QC Pan1


A Postmodern Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, a princess left her kingdom in the dark Underworld for the bright sunshine of terrestrial life. But the sun blinded her and erased her memory of her magical world. She was lost, her body suffered and she died like earthly mortals. But her father, the King, remained steadfast and believed that she would come back in whatever form. He waited for her return to the Underworld.

Thus began the story of Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno). If you think this is just another fantasy film for grade school kids, you cannot be more wrong. Mexican writer / director Guillermo del Toro’s film is anything but children’s fare.

Del Toro presents two worlds juxtaposed with one another. One world is the supernatural realm of magical fairies, fauns, and monsters. The other is the very real world of tyrants, rebels, soldiers, wives and children. One young girl, Ofelia, has one foot each in both worlds.

Del Toro is not new to the supernatural. He directed Hellboy, the film about the comic book hero from Hell. In Del Toro’s hand, the utterly fantastic superhero from Hell becomes almost like Everyman despite his grotesque appearance. But in this film, Del Toro outdid himself. The film has gone way beyond comic book or fairy tale characters.

This is not like any fantasy film. In movies like Harry Potter and Narnia, the magical world holds center stage. In films like The Brothers Grimm or Hellboy, the fantastic and the real live and interact in the same world. In Pan, the two worlds co-exist yet are separate. The lead character Ofelia is the only connecting point between the worlds. In most, if not all fantasy films, only one world is interesting to the viewers. Here, del Toro succeeds in making both worlds equally interesting. War, torture, guilt, pride, innocence, murder, etc. exist simultaneously in both worlds.

In other films, once the lead character(s) enter(s) the realm of fantasy, the real world retreats into the periphery, usually as bookends to the film. Once Alice enters Wonderland, the real world ceased to be interesting for the viewers. But in Pan, the real world competes with the fantasy world for the audience’s attention.

In the world of spirits, a fairy guides the young Ofelia to a labyrinth to meet a scary-looking faun, who is presumably the Greek god Pan as indicated in the English title of the film. The faun tells her that she is not mortal and that she can go back to her kingdom if she performs three tasks before the next full moon. Her first task is to get a key from the belly of a giant toad. Her second task is to take a dagger from the mansion of a slumbering, fairy- and child-eating humanoid creature. To help her do the tasks are few fairies and a magical chalk.

Like ordinary mortals, she bungles the second task which angers the faun, who declares that she failed the test. Later, the faun relents and gives her a second chance to finish the third task which will determine whether she returns to her magical kingdom or she remains a mortal.

In the world of humans, Ofelia is a child in post-Civil war Spain. Her mother has a difficult pregnancy and her health is in danger. Her mother is pregnant with the child of Capt. Vidal, Ofelia’s step-father.

Vidal is a fascist soldier intent on wiping out the remaining Republican/Communist resistance. He is a monster incarnated. He shoots anyone for no purpose and tortures the suspected rebels. He keeps all the food of the village and rations it to everyone. He is obsessed with having a son.

Meanwhile, the rebel leader Pedro and his group remain within the vicinity of Vidal’s troops. His sister Mercedes acts as his spy in the Vidal household. He plans to make life hell for Vidal, who makes life hell for everyone else.

The blood and gore in the world of humans are far worse than in the world of monsters and demons. In one scene, Captain Vidal looks at a wounded rebel who was shot in the throat. He asks the rebel if he could talk. Since he couldn’t, he decides to shoot the rebel because he could not be interrogated. He points the gun at the rebel. The rebel weakly wards off the gun. He points the gun again, and the wounded rebel weakly parries it off again. After the third try, Vidal shoots the rebel through his (rebel’s) hand.

In another scene, Mercedes slits Vidal’s cheek. This is more gruesome than Roman Polanski slitting Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown. And worse, Vidal calmly sews it up using nothing but brandy as anesthetic.

Pan could easily be two films – a fantasy about Pan’s labyrinth and a Spanish Civil war film. Del Toro wove these two parts into one coherent whole, which makes this film truly unique. Because of the extreme realism of the war part, the fantasy part becomes almost real. In fact, like the film’s chief protagonist Ofelia, the viewers increasingly hope that the fantasy world is real because all hope for Ofelia is lost in the real world.


One ingredient that makes this film memorable is the acting talents of the players. The acting and personality of the 11-year old Spanish actress Ivana Bacquero lends a great deal of realism in the film. As Ofelia, Bacquero remains in character whether among spirits or among humans. She does not turn into a super heroine when she is in the fantasy world. She continues to be tentative and even makes mistakes. Even though she knows she is in essence a princess, she does not let that knowledge interfere in her affairs with ordinary mortals.

The Spanish actor Sergi López, who is known in Spain as a melodramatic or comedy actor, gave a very convincing performance. He acted the monstrous character Capitan Vidal without over-playing it. He was calm and calculating, an obsessed man with a chip on his shoulder.

Maribel Verdú, the Spanish actress known to many Filipinos as the sexy Spanish lady in the Mexican smash hit Y Tu Mama Tambien, played against type. Instead of a femme fatale, she was de-glamorized. She was very convincing as a housekeeper / rebel spy.

The Faun (or Pan) is grotesquely scary yet somehow approachable. Instead of being computer-generated, the Faun and the fairy-eating humanoid creature were played by actor Doug Jones, who was also in Hellboy.


The script is almost flawless which makes for a very coherent movie. It won the Best Original Screenplay Award at Goya Awards (Spanish Oscars).  The cinematography is simple yet beautiful. It got the nod of both the Goya and the Oscars. The make-up and special effects, which won for the film several awards, are top-notch. The British Academy gave it the Best Foreign Film Award, among others. And the lullaby that opens and ends the film is haunting. The scoring was nominated at the Oscars.

And then there are the seamless transitions. For example, the transitions within the prologue and from the prologue to the main body of the film are done very well. First we hear the sound of heavy breathing, then we hear an accompanying lullaby, then we see words flashed on the screen describing the setting and situation, then we see a girl bloodied and grasping for breath. And through the girl’s eyeball, we are led to the realm of the Underworld with voice-over narration telling us the story of a princess who escaped from her kingdom to a seemingly brighter human world. And then we see ruined buildings and two 1940’s cars and a truck going through a dirt road. And then we see a book, then a child reading the book with her mother at her side. Both are inside the car.

In the first 2 minutes and 13 seconds, Del Toro gives a summary of the whole film. The viewers can surmise that the girl in the car is the reincarnation of the princess and that she will end up bleeding and gasping for breath. Whether that would happen as a result of the civil war or the underworld events remains to be seen.


In my review of the Brothers Grimm, I wrote: “Fairy tales are not just for children. They are part of our magical selves. Terry Gilliam’s the Brothers Grimm (2005) is a great fairy tale that gives the audience what the original tales contain –humor, daring, romance, magic and the macabre.”

But Del Toro has upped the ante. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is an even greater fairy tale because it can make adults believe in fairy tales or at least acknowledge that even fairy tales can be made of very serious stuff.

Many film theorists say that narrative is the most important aspect of films. A narrative in whatever form – film, play, novel, etc. – should appear “as natural as life itself”. Del Toro’s fairy tale does just that.


Published in Mr. & Ms. Magazine, May 2007

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