Be warned: despite much of the marketing suggesting otherwise, Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film is certainly no festive fantasy. Dark and harrowing, with many scenes casting mocking asides at the BBFC’s ‘15’ certification, this exploration of what happens to childhood innocence when forced into collision with some of the harshest of human realities is likely to leave you feeling as though you’ve been beaten up and left to die.
But then maybe that’s what you were expecting. After all, the director has already established this template with the violent excesses of Hellboy and Blade 2, each clearly demonstrating his propensity for blood-letting aesthetics. But even these references are misleading. The purpose of the violence in those two films was to entertain, the broken limbs and scattered carcasses an extension of the comic-book worlds from which the films were spawned: its use here is different. Like Irreversible before it, there’s a point being made on how we respond to violence, both in the world and on the screen, although you might be too disturbed to extract it.
The plot of the film centres around a young girl, 12 year old Orfelia (perfectly played by Ivana Baquero), forced to relocate to a remote Spanish outpost during the country’s 1944 civil war when her stepfather Vidal, a fascist commander intent on obliterating the local resistance (Sergi Lopez, in a blistering performance), demands that her pregnant mother be near him so that he can be present at the birth of his son (a son being what he wants, and therefore expects). Orfelia’s character, introverted and withdrawn, is established early on by the collection of fairy tales clutched defensively under her arm, as though sustaining a link to a more innocent world as she increasingly comes to reject the one around her.
Implored by her mother to attempt to bond with her new father, she quickly finds herself torn between filial duty and her own natural terror of the man. Not that our sympathies ever stray anywhere near lying with Vidal: not long after he coldly rejects Orfelia’s attempts at making acquaintance, we see him destroying an innocent man’s face with a bottle.
The labyrinth of the title refers not to a Jim Henson land of lovable puppets and slightly creepy songs by Bowie, but to a half-lit oubliette unvisited by the occupying soldiers; the ‘Pan’, we assume (although he is never formally identified as such), an unsettlingly staccato-tongued faun that resides at its centre, awakened by Orfelia’s approach to spout gilt-edged prophecies regarding her regal heritage in a mythical land. All she need do to return there, he claims, is complete three tasks before the next full moon.
The film’s remaining length is henceforth divided between Orfelia’s reality of the war and her incursions into the labyrinth, but in defiance of the genre’s traditional remit we actually spend more time in the former, our experience of Pan’s dark underworld restricted to just a handful of short sequences. For those expecting an extensive depiction of an imagined realm this may seem a little jarring – and indeed, with the many promotional posters each invariably foregrounding a fantasy aesthetic (particularly the image of the gnarled and twisted tree, seeming to reference a thousand other, considerably more representative, fantasy films before it), you’d be forgiven for perhaps feeling a little misled – but as the story progresses the distinctions between the two worlds become near-meaningless, as they are meshed together by the horror common to them both.
It’s a difficult film to define, but perhaps an even harder one to watch, beautiful though it is. It’s not often in these desensitised times that we actually find ourselves affected by the things we see on screen, as opposed to just numbed into submission (The Passion Of The Christ), but Del Toro succeeds here not on account of what we see, but who. Orfelia makes for a striking protagonist, inviting immediate empathy and capturing us within the innocence of her world-view from the start. Stripped of our adult cynicism, we invest our hopes in hers, believing in her opportunity to escape her dreadful circumstances. It’s a simple but devastatingly effective technique, disarming us utterly against the scenes that unfold.
By contrast Vidal is a monster, Sergi Lopez investing him with an unmitigated inhumanity rarely found outside of Disney baddies and cartoonish super-villains. Utterly amoral, with nothing but his own interests at heart, it’s tempting to perhaps view the real monsters faced within Orfelia’s tasks as mere twisted reflections of his traits, amplified by her imagination. Yet whilst it would be easy for a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever to be played in just the one dimension, somehow Lopez makes him seem real, if anything making him even more horrifying.
It seems strange to recommend a film so likely to sear your consciousness with images and ideas that you’ll never displace, but it’s precisely for this reason that I must. It’s so rare for cinema to leave a mark: we have such an abundance of media now that it all just kind of merges into a grey-brown smear, leeching away our time whilst leaving little beyond a short-term gratification. You will never forget this. Del Toro has made something new here, a feat even more amazing considering his constituent parts: war and fantasy are surely our most tired of genres; twining them together sure-fire creative anathema. But this defies the logic. It’s beautiful and disturbing all at once, tragic yet strangely uplifting, even when it has no right to be, unerringly bleak yet never, ever, anything less than utterly compelling.
Christian Cottingham, January 2007.