Since the 1930’s, fairy tales have become Disney-fied. We’ve come to expect that the prince will kiss Snow White or find Cinderella (with the help of some happy singing mice). Enchanted was a delightful play on the Disney conventions, but even there true love wins and everyone lives happily ever after, except for the wicked queen.
But fairy tales can be dark, fearful things. In the original Hans Christian Andersen story, The Little Mermaid dies heartbroken. Only Stephen Sondheim could write a catchy show tune about that, and he did play off the fairy tale theme brilliantly with Into The Woods. The nearest Disney came to pungent, heart-grabbing emotion you can find in a fairy tale was with Bambi’s mother. Fairy tales and fables can raise our spirits and challenge us to suspect that there is more to this world than what we can comprehend. In that sense, the fairy tale lets children practice faith. It’s a lesson we adults would do well to remember.
One movie that captured the dangerous world of fairy tales with a heartbreaking beauty was Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Guillermo del Toro, the writer and director, had worked in the fantastic before with Mimic (1997), Hellboy (2004), and The Devil’s Backbone (2001). That final movie shares several elements with Pan’s Labyrinth, with is setting in Spain during civil conflict and the mixture of the supernatural with a violent natural world. But where Backbone was an effective ghost story, Pan’s Labyrinth aims at a higher goal, and hits the bull’s eye. The opening shot, of a young girl lying on the ground staring at the camera as blood runs back into her mouth, grabs you, and the rest of the movie won’t let you go.
The story begins with a journey in 1944. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a girl of around 12, is accompanying her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to an outpost in a heavily-forested part of Spain. That is where her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is battling guerillas that are still fighting against Franco’s Fascists even after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Her mother is in the midst of a difficult pregnancy and has to stop because of illness. During the stop, Ofelia explores the forest around them and finds a carved stone face. From it emerges a flying insect that looks like a praying mantis on steroids. That night at the outpost, the insect returns to Ofelia and reveals she is a fairy. She guides Ofelia into an ancient maze behind the outpost and to the center where the girl descends into a pit. There she meets Fauno (Doug Jones) who tells Ofelia she is a princess in another world. The princess had slipped away to explore this world many years ago, but was blinded by the sun and forgot who she was. She eventually died, but the king knew her soul could return in a different body. He placed the labyrinth as a portal for her to return, guarded by the faun. But Ofelia must accomplish three tasks before the next full moon to prove she is the princess.
Playing in counterpoint to Ofelia’s story is Vidal’s sadistic and violent campaign against the guerillas. Caught in the conflict is Mercedes (Meribel Verdu), the housekeeper for Vidal whose brother is leading the guerillas. Vidal’s methods are draconian. He gathers the food supplies at the outpost and rations them out, so there’s not enough food for people to share with the rebels. With any rebels caught, he brutally tortures them to make them reveal anything they know, and sympathizers are summarily killed.
The acting is stellar. Lopez fills Vidal with a horribly calm and intelligent violence that can explode at any moment. His polar opposite is Mercedes, whom Verdu imbues with nobility even as she reviles herself for cowardliness at not rebelling openly against Vidal. She also becomes a surrogate mother for Ofelia. Baquero is a wonder, projecting the innocence of youth even as she sees more than any of the adults around her, both in Pan’s world as well as Vidal’s. The movie’s score is exceptional, richly melodic and melancholic. It’s a perfect fit for the story.
Del Toro creates a fantasy world a mere step beyond reality, especially with the three tasks Ofelia must accomplish. While the first has a high level of ickiness, the second is truly scary, when Ofelia’s disobedience puts her in the path of the Pale Man, a creature who’s a bizarre twist on the old phrase, “put your hands over your eyes.” The final task at the climax of the film, though, will break your heart. But in that breaking is the route to ascend to wonderful heights. As the tag line from the film says: “In darkness, there can be light. In misery, there can be beauty. In death, there can be life….” If you find yourself in tears at the end of the movie, know that you are not alone. They were running down my face the first time I saw this beautiful movie.
Even with English subtitles, the movie was a hit in the US, earning almost $40 million at the box office, and garnering 6 Academy nominations. (It won for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Makeup.) It didn’t win for the Best Foreign-Language film that year. That prize was taken by another film that I will cover in my next post.