“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a Guillermo del Toro film that may or may not be a war movie. It certainly fits into the fantasy genre. The movie was written by del Toro based on notes and sketches he did in a notebook over several years. Not only did he write the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award), but he translated the dialogue and wrote the subtitles. He turned down double the budget offered by a Hollywood studio because the money came with the demand that it be done in English. Was the movie a labor of love? Duh. The movie was a big hit with critics and discerning movie goers (you know – the ones who are willing to read subtitles). It premiered at Cannes where it received a twenty-two minute standing ovation. It ended up winning Oscars for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Makeup (which must have made Doug Jones who played the Faun and the Pale Man feel better about the hours he spent in getting make-up). It was nominated for Best Foreign Film (it lost to “The Lives of Others” but probably should not have).
The movie is set in Spain in 1944. Although the Spanish Civil War has been over for five years, there is still a resistance movement called the Maquis. These rebels are in the mountains standing up to the Franco government using tactics like sabotage. Into this environment comes a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother. They are going to meet her stepfather who is a captain in the Spanish army. Vidal (Sergei Lopez) has been assigned the task of wiping out a rebel band in the area. He plans on accomplishing this task by any means necessary. Since he is a Fascist, you can about imagine what lengths he is willing to go to. Plus he’s evil. When he viciously executes two suspects you know this is not a kid’s movie.
The movie follows two narrative tracks. Vidal is hunting for the rebels and Ofelia is in a fantasy arc that has her performing tasks assigned by a Faun after a fairy takes her to a labyrinth on the grounds of the estate. The Faun believes that Ofelia is the reincarnation of a princess who died and needs to return to her rightful place with her father the King of the Underworld. The tasks come from the mind of del Toro and some drug use may have been involved. The first involves getting a key from a giant toad and a dagger from a monster who has one eye and it’s in his palm (the Pale Man). While Ofelia is living out her fantasy (or is it?), her stepfather’s war with the Maquis is a realistic portrayal of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency at its most brutal. Vidal is getting increasingly frustrated as counterinsurgents tend to get. His housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is with the insurgents and befriends Ofelia. This is where the two stories intertwine.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is an amazing movie. It is one of those movies that deserves multiple viewings. The special effects are outstanding. There is a mixture of CGI, animatronics, and make-up (that Oscar was a no brainer). The scares are potent. Stephen King (who saw the film with del Toro) squirmed when the Pale Man chased Ofelia. If those images were in del Toro’s head for years, he must have lost some sleep. The score fosters the eerie vibe and the cinematography is stellar. The Oscar for Art Direction was well deserved. Vidal’s room is designed to mirror the inside of his watch. Did I mention this is not a kid’s movie? Not only is it scary, but the non-fantasy segments can be gory. Like most guerrilla wars. There is a visceral fire-fight in the forest that includes execution of the wounded. There is torture for confession. And there is a dedicated counterinsurgent who would fit well in the Gestapo. In fact, Vidal belongs in Satan’s secret police. He is one of the most villainous characters I have encountered. Lopez sinks his fangs into the role, but the rest of the cast is strong. Baquero is perfect as Ofelia. She auditioned so well that del Toro changed the age of the character to fit her. Verdu is the rare strong woman in a war movie.
But is it a war movie? It fits most definitions. It not only is set in a war situation, but it includes combat. However, for purposes of my 100 Best War Movies list, I think I will not consider it for inclusion. I am currently leaning toward excluding movies that clearly fall into another genre before they would be considered to be part of the war movie genre. This is why I probably will not include any Westerns on my list. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is much more comfortable in the fantasy genre. I do not think war movie comes to mind when people think of the movie. with that said, it is a great movie and should be seen by all cinephiles whether they are war movie buffs or not.
GRADE = A