We went last Saturday night with a few friends to see this long-anticipated film. First stop on the bitterly cold night (although not as cold as today, brrr) was the Ultraviolet Cafe next to the Spectrum 8. Tasty sandwiches! We met up with Lou there and had a chance to chat before running back next door to the theater, where Mary Ann, Mandi and Donna already had seats (thanks!). After sitting through the trailer for Volver again (of course, fittingly), the film began.
The first few moments are oddly reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, with young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) finding the overgrown old pillar just a few steps from civilization’s track. Placing the odd rock she had found into the eye of the statue, she’s surprised to see a spindly insect emerge from the mouth of the pillar. “I’ve just seen a fairy!” she announces to her mother (Ariadna Gil), who is weakly leaning against the staff car trying to keep from throwing up. It’s a wonderful opening, setting up the main tenets of Guillermo de Toro’s vivid tale: Ofelia’s dreamy longing, her mother’s struggle, the vague menace of the military (soon to be anything but vague) and the distant father (Sergi López), their final destination. The last player — Mercedes, the stubbornly determined servant played with a vulnerable ferocity by Meribel Verdú — appears when the motorcade arrives at the converted mill.
But I’ve skipped over the very beginning: using the language of fairy tale, del Toro presents a framing narrative about a princess lost from her beloved underworld as the camera drifts from a prone and bleeding child to a spinning subterranean world. He has spoken much about his love of fairy tales (such as this recent interview on Fresh Air). While most of th audience probably takes this as metaphor, there is no reason not to read the story as real (albeit fantastical). The power of fantasy and belief are at the heart of the narrative. While easily dismissed as “childish nonsense,” Ofelia’s powerful determination to shape her reality shines, even in the face of her mother’s cajoling disapproval and her step-father’s bloody fascism (literally in this case, he’s one of Franco‘s men).
The boundaries between what we perceive as reality and as fantasy are often hard to determine. The titular labyrinth certainly seems to be real to everyone — not so the faun at its center. He is a figure both imposing and inviting. Del Toro has said that he wanted the figure (one from his own childhood dreams) to remain a “neutral” figure, neither good nor bad, but a true representative of nature. As we know, nature can be both beautiful and dangerous, always implacable. When he sets the tasks for Ofelia, we don’t know whether to see this as an escape from her mother’s suffering and the Captain’s cruelty, or the possibility of winning release from an intolerable life. The imagery moves fluidly from the delightful to the horrific (although as Gene was quick to point out, the most horrific moments were the ones that were most real — ewww! I’ll never look at a darning needle again without flinching!). There is the delight when the spindly insect observes the picture Ofelia shows it, telling the creature “This is what a fairy looks like!” with all the certainty of a child. At once it reshapes itself into the “true” form. There are also terrifying images: the giant toad at the bottom of a tree and the Pale Man (like Pan, played by Doug Jones), all maggoty white and pendulous skin with his horribly displaced eyes. Like Spirit of the Beehive (another movie that deals with the devastation of Franco’s cruel reign), the film highlights the way children attempt to deal with adult crises, not by fleeing their fear, but by embracing horror.
I’m not sure I want to say much more about specifics — if you haven’t seen it yet, you must. It is one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve seen in some time, and the excellent cast draws you completely into the story. I feel encouraged that there is such a strong return to the fantastic in films recently — I think the LOTR films did a lot to awaken that hunger for it. It’s a draining experience as all great storytelling should be; we all came out of the theatre a little dazed and had to repair to the Fountain for some pizza and onion rings to get our feet back on the ground. We wil ahve much to chew on for a long time yet, thanks to del Toro’s Pan.