No Place Like Home
Oh please, whatever you do, do not bring a child to see Pan’s Labyrinth. First of all, it’s in Spanish, and while reading a book to a kid is a grand thing, reading a movie is a sure way to annoy yourself, the kid, and everyone sitting within five rows.
But mostly: Holy ruby slippers, is this one grim film. Enthrallingly spooky, appropriately frightful, but grim. Grim like it might make the Brothers Grimm say, “Well, it’s a bit dark, isn’t it?” in an accusatory tone. I know, it looks all fantastical and wondrous and there’s even a pretty little girl in it, and what bad things could possibly happen to a pretty little girl in a fantasy movie?
Leave it to the masterfully imaginative Mexican-American filmmaker Guillermo del Toro to show us. Del Toro is redefining gothic horror for the new century — even with flicks like the superhero action Hellboy, which reveled in the atmosphere of esoteric eerieness it created — and he does it here by taking imagery and characters we’re familiar with and twisting them into new shapes that acknowledge the deep history of mythology while injecting a decidedly modern discomfort with the uncertainty and infinite capriciousness of the world. Unlike in the fairy tales of old, perhaps, where little girls felt safe until the very moment in which they learned they were not, there is not even that much comfort to be found in a world created by del Toro.
We have here Ofelia (a beautiful performance by Ivana Baquero, 12 years old when the film was shot), living in mirror image of The Wizard of Oz: it is her real world that demands a ruby-slipper escape. It is 1944, and Spain is in the grip of Franco’s post-civil-war repression. Orphaned Ofelia and her widowed mother, pregnant by her new husband, go to live with him (Sergi López), a military captain heading up a mountain base, his mission to clear out the last dregs of rebel guerillas hiding in the forests. He’s a vicious man, which Ofelia, and we, sense immediately. More warning to parents who might chance taking a child to this (and to squeamish adults): the captain’s sadism does not occur offscreen, but very much on; and know that López (Jet Lag, Dirty Pretty Things), a fantastically talented actor, takes on the captain in a way that brooks no camp, suggests not a hint of cartoonishness.
And so it is with del Toro (Mimic), in his approach to the fantasy life that Ofelia retreats into in these dire circumstances. There is nothing bright or cheery about the tangled forest labyrinth into which Ofelia wanders, drawn by visions of an intriguingly creepy faun who insists that Ofelia is the lost scion of a royal faery family, and that if she can complete three quests, she may rejoin them in a land unimaginably more pleasant than the one she finds herself in. Del Toro’s imagery is a forceful, almost insistent evocation of familiar tropes, most particularly those of Alice in Wonderland: magical talking creatures, enchanted food that is Not To Be Eaten… But there’s a sticky earthiness to these lands on either side of the faery border: there is mud and blood and all manner of hellish visions made all the more hellish because they are built of the recognizable elements of everyday life. Eyeballs appear in strange places; vegetables dream of being human. This is haunting stuff, and not always in the most pleasant way you want to be haunted by a movie.
Most haunting of all, perhaps, is del Toro’s equivocation. Is Ofelia merely daydreaming, simply creating a diversion for herself in order to psychologically survive the moment? Or is it all really real, the labyrinth and the faun and the giant gloopy frog and the chalk that draws a door into an underworld and the destiny that awaits her on the other side? The question becomes very urgent in the end, when whole new interpretations of “there’s no place like home” become vital if you’re not to find yourself so totally distressed by del Toro’s sinister reverie that you can’t leave it. Truly, this is a fairy tale for today, for this very moment of infinite unease in which escape, should it come, is accompanied by undreamed of horror.