Little Girl Lost
By Noel Vera

El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)
Dir: Guillermo del Toro (2006)

The fairy tale that opens the picture--about a princess from an underground kingdom who wanders to the surface, can't find her way back, grows old, and dies--pretty much says it all: this is the story of a girl who was lost, and has since been trying to find herself. Or rather who felt lost, then fumbled her way to some form of self-assessment--what kind of person she is, what she will or will not do.

It's Spain, 1944; Franco's fascist regime has been in power for some years now. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is being driven along with her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) through miles of woodland to her new stepfather, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez); Vidal welcomes his new wife--hugely pregnant with his precious new son--and stepdaughter, installs them in the old mill where he's staying, and continues on his sadistic business of hunting down and torturing the few diehard Republicans hiding in the surrounding mountains. Ofelia, mostly left to herself, explores the grounds of the mill, and an old labyrinth nearby; she encounters a giant faun (Doug Jones--he had previously acted out marine superhero Abe Sapiens in del Toro's "Hellboy") who explains to her that she's really the long-lost princess, and to regain access to her underground kingdom she must perform three tasks before the coming of the full moon.

It's easy to say Guillermo del Toro's "El laberinto del fauno" (Pan's Labyrinth, 2006) is a fantasy--or perhaps not; I've heard reactions from hardcore fantasy freaks that the fantasy is really rather minimal, the special effects less than spectacular. Fine by me--I'm not one to look for spectacle, or the "Wow! Wasn't that kewl?" factor; if anything, this is one of the rare CGI films where the digital effects seem more convincing than conventionally flashy, more carefully executed and integrated into the live-action footage so that the fantastic creatures actually seem to stand before you, with real texture and heft to them (If you reached out towards the screen, you almost find yourself thinking, you just might brush amphibian slime, or parchmentlike monster skin, or worse).

As for the minimal fantasy--del Toro has been quoted as saying he sees fantasy as "not a way to escape reality but to articulate reality… a way to talk about big truths." The film isn't really about a girl who escapes into a fantasy world because the real world is too unpleasant for her, but about a girl who creates a fantasy world to help mediate what's happening in the world around her. Fantasy as therapy, a means of coping.

You see it in the film's style--the boundary between reality and fantasy is deliberately blurred. Ofelia climbs out of a car, peers at an old stone sculpture with a dark hole of a mouth. The hole suddenly burps forth an oddly winged and articulated insect--not common-looking, but not entirely fantastic (you may have seen something similar on a nature channel documentary--the unsettling resemblance to several types of walking sticks is probably intentional); the girl, convinced that what she's seeing is a fairy, talks to it.

She's called back to the car, which drives off; the insect flits to a position behind a tree, and, with preternatural intelligence, peers around the tree at the departing vehicle. The entire sequence is grounded in reality (slightly stretched reality--the insect is a well crafted CGI creation), with only the insect's last gesture hinting at something a little more, hinting that perhaps the girl is right.

Later you see more correlations between real and make-believe. The adventure with the toad beneath the tree (the first of the girl's three tasks) is some kind of parable--the toad representing the Fascists growing fat off the roots of the starved fig tree (Spain, or at least the people living around the Capitan's mill); the adventure with The Pale Man (Doug Jones, again--del Toro calls the two creatures "incarnations of the same character"). The second adventure can be seen as a retelling of her and her housekeeper Mercedes' (Maribel Verdu) predicament--Ofelia sneaking out on nocturnal secret missions for a faun, Mercedes doing likewise for the Republicans she secretly supports, in defiance of Capitan Vidal.

Both missions, it should be noted, involve a key; both carry out their missions literally under the noses of creatures (The Pale Man; Capitan Vidal) who are dangerous when awakened. The third task is the most perilous of all, of course, the one where Mercedes' world of Fascists and Republicans in mortal conflict and Ofelia's world of underground kingdoms and perils beyond her understanding ultimately collide.

Del Toro doesn't follow any strict rules with his fantasies, drawing inspiration everywhere, from Dunsany to Dodgson to C.S. Lewis to Borges, and that's all right--one can imagine the book-savvy Ofelia, picking and choosing from what she's read, and reconstructing them to fit her present circumstances (Lewis and Borges's influence may be anachronistic--but never mind).

He strives to give the forest where the Republicans hide a fairy-tale look (you feel as if you might spot Hansel and Gretel wandering among the trees), while the Capitan's mill house resembles an ogre's den; at the same time, Ofelia's fantasy world finds many echoes and correlations in the real world (along with the aforementioned correspondences to real life, del Toro notes that the Pale Man's dining room is laid out almost exactly like the Capitan's).

Sergi Lopez's Capitan is such a strong presence some critics have wondered could the film have been better--or more complex--if he had been recast as a more sympathetic figure, adding a note of ambiguity (as for those who would question its authenticity--whether or not such violence was practiced--I would them to records of interrogation methods used at the time, methods used and still used in the Philippines, actually).


I'd argue that creating a sympathetic Capitan would either extend the film's running length or take screen time away from Ofelia--and Ofelia, not the Capitan, is the films' true focus (or what del Toro chose to be the true focus).

The film is not so much about choice, or at least not directly, as it is about learning to use imagination, the power of conceptualization. Imagination has helped her survive, keep her sanity, process information otherwise unbearable to her--the fact, for example that her baby brother may be endangering her mother's life (a reason for her to hate the unborn child); she could blame it on the Capitan instead, for taking away the mandrake root she had hidden under her mother's bed (when you think about it, it IS the Capitan's fault--he insisted on having the woman driven over, despite her fragile health).

Imagination has served her well throughout the film; towards the end, its machinations hone her attention, make her realize what's really at stake, what she must do in the midst of chaos, and who she must defy to do it. She learns an even more important lesson, the limits imagination must inevitably have: at what point she should stop listening to the voices in her head--the voices she created and yearns to yield to and obey--and start listening to an even fainter voice, that of her still developing moral sense.

The film has for its center a labyrinth, the labyrinth for its center a little girl, the girl for her center a complex knot of feelings (jealousy of her unborn brother; fear of her stepfather and of the giant faun; unrequited love for her distracted mother and developing love for the secretly heroic housekeeper, Mercedes), the knot for its center a bewildered consciousness, trying to untangle it all and escape.

Not perhaps a great--I can't help but compare it to Victor Erice's "El espiritu de la colmena" (Spirit of the beehive, 1973), a clear influence and far more beautiful, delicate, mysterious film--but at least the best fantasy film I've seen in recent years.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 04/27/07.
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May 18, 2007