The war of two worlds

“Pan’s Labyrinth” tells a dark fairy tale that switches between a child’s fantasy and wartime reality

Michael Garberich

Two personal yet far-reaching battles compete in alternate worlds in 1944 Spain: one is fought with muskets and blades – blood and fog constitute a country’s real, historical nightmare; the other is contained within a child’s imagination – an elaborate, internal metaphor in which ghastly, mythological creatures and an intricate, Borgesian universe confound one’s perception of the real and imagined worlds.

With “Pan’s Labyrinth,” director Guillermo del Toro (“The Devil’s Backbone,” “Hellboy”) matches his propensity for the gothic with a bravely intellectual orchestration of children’s fairy tales and post-Spanish Civil War fascism.

Yeah, it’s heavy on the historical-political subject matter and dark in every other way, so those seeking a merry adventure splashed with bright light, color and whimsy had better find recourse to “Narnia” (the 2005 Disney adaptation the Mexican-born director turned down).

Ofelia, played by 12 year-old Ivana Baquero, is the child protagonist with a naïve, genteel demeanor. With her beloved fairy tales held tightly in her arms, she represents the opposition to her hunkering step-father’s totalitarian rule. He is Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a fascist militant who, having taken command over Ofelia’s family (and Spain, metaphorically), retreats to a mill in the woods with Ofelia’s pregnant mother so that he might be present at his son’s birth.

“Pan’s Labyrinth”
DIRECTED BY: Guillmero Del Toro
STARRING: Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Sergi López
RATED: R
PLAYING AT: Uptown Theater

Del Toro’s richly meticulous and nightmarish mise-en-scène, here set amidst a thick, imposing and eternally gray forest, is marked by a virtuosic capacity to both captivate one with its wild imagination and to shock with its unwavering eye for violence and gore. Yet his camera never rests. It moves lithely through each scene – tracking, craning and panning – persistently examining its subject, and in so doing, it forms a purely cinematic poeticism that still entrances and terrifies an American audience that might not identify with Spain’s history.

Throughout, the house at the mill creaks and moans at night, and the woods in the daytime appear damp, the landscape fatigued, as if the weight of fascism has entrenched Spain at the border of an imminent torrent.

But this scenery constitutes only half of “Pan’s” world, one in which Vidal seeks the annihilation of a group of communist rebels who occupy the woods. They appear and disappear like a silent horde of apparitions, maintaining contact with two insiders employed at the mill – Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo) and the benevolent housekeeper, Mercedes (“Y tu Mamá También’s” Maribel Verdú).

The other world is one inspired by Ofelia’s fairytales, animated with the same grating anxiety that stalks the fascist nightmare of 1944 Spain.

She is summoned by a stridulous, mantis-like sprite that leads her to the faun (Doug Jones), the mythological woodland creature that is typically characterized by a man’s upper body and the legs of a goat. But Ofelia’s guide stands shakily atop vine-like legs, has the glossy, milky eyes of a walleye and speaks in a portentous vibrato that betrays the aid he offers her. He informs her that she is the incarnation of the king of the underworld’s lost daughter, and to reclaim her throne she must complete three tasks that plunge her deep into del Toro’s alternate fairytale world.

It is here that she encounters the sublime and fantastic – which del Toro has magnificently captured – such as the Pale Man (also Doug Jones) who sits motionless before a feast and wears his eyes in slits in the palm of his hands.

Throughout “Pan,” del Toro alternates between the “real” world of 1944 Spain and the “imagined” world of Ofelia’s fairy tales, gradually drawing parallels between the figures in each. Subtly, yet through unassailably confrontational violence, the two merge, and we are left to attempt to distinguish nightmare and fairytale through both our own and a child’s perspective.