Rarely does a film come along that shatters the conventions of cinematic genres. But Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” flawlessly interweaves an imaginative fairy tale with brutally realistic wartime drama to produce one of the most provocative explorations of fascism ever made.
Set in a Spanish countryside during fascist rule, the film tells the story of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, “Fragiles”), a young girl who loves and practically dwells in fairy-tale novels. When she and her pregnant mother move to her military stepfather’s outpost, reality is blurred when Ofelia meets a faun (Doug Jones, “Hellboy”) who informs her that she’s the long-lost princess of a magical realm with three daunting tasks to complete. Meanwhile, her ruthless stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, “Dirty Pretty Things”) is responsible for eradicating the Republican insurgency that threatens the fascist military base from the surrounding forests. As Ofelia embarks on her mystical quest, the violence around her escalates, and fantasy and reality often become indistinguishable.
Ivana Baquero is captivating as Ofelia, an innocent girl amid a horrifically violent world. Whether or not her fantasies are real is up for debate. Either way, they’re her only escape from a cruel reality of which she wants no part.
But Sergi Lopez’s Captain Vidal is a formidable – as well as scene-stealing – foe. Vidal, with his calm exterior and fascist convictions, is easily one of the best movie villains in recent memory, totally merciless and hateful, but also painfully real. Unlike the one-note antagonists we’ve grown so accustomed to, Vidal’s character is undeniably complex. His obsession with his son and passing on an honorable legacy gives him a human quality that makes his brutality even more chilling.
With a budget of just $5 million, Del Toro creates a visually stunning film. The movie’s fairy tale landscapes and numerous computer -generated creatures rival even the most extravagant Hollywood projects. Composer Javier Navarette’s (“The Devil’s Backbone”) haunting score echoes a familiar lullaby and offers a fitting companion to Del Toro’s fantastical vision.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” neither panders to the younger crowd by curbing its violent theme nor compromises its child-oriented premise to please an older audience. The fantasy aspect lends it an accessibility that is impossible with drama alone. Likewise, the period piece provides a revealing backdrop. It’s this symbiotic relationship that makes “Pan’s Labyrinth” one of the great films of the year.