For the fairy tale, that literary genre in which we all receive much early instruction, the preferred setting is often an enchanted forest. Guillermo Del Toro, in his new spanish language film Pan's Labyrinth, has given us, if nothing else, an enchanted forest unrivaled in the history of film. Ofelia, the younger of the two marvelous heroines in Pan's Labyrinth, is, when we first meet her, coming to live in a remote old mill, converted into a de facto military base with the purpose of routing the last of the remaining resistance militias, in newly fascist Spain. What business would she, a girl of 11 (too old, her mother remarks, to still be so engrossed in the reading of fairy tales) have in this messy little corner of the war? Her new stepfather, it emerges, is El Capitan Vidal, and he has sent for Ofelia's pregnant mother, so that she may bear his son nearby, under his watchful eye. In the long and distinguished history of evil storybook step parents, surely this Captain Vidal has secured for himself a prominent place. For every fairy tale requires a persona embodying that thing to be contrasted to, to be strived against: pure evil, and our Captain doesn't shrink from this duty. We notice that, in their first meeting, he is contemptuous of young Ofelia and in varying degrees, his pregnant wife, and the housekeeper, Mercedes. We could easily chalk these discourtesies up to bad manners, or a potent streak of male chauvinism. Perhaps this captain isn't such a bad fellow. Mr. Del Toro will not let us entertain these notions long. Indeed it is in the night, that dark realm in which true evil relaxes, stretches out, reveals itself, where we first glimpse the full scale of his sadism. A father and son are caught by the Captain's men high in the hills with a rifle, freshly shot. They insist the rifle was only used to hunt rabbits, and their story seems to be corroborated by their dress, their manner. The younger man, heartbreakingly, insists that his father is an honest man. No matter. Captain Vidal breaks a large bottle across his forehead, reducing the man to his knees, and then jabs the broken bottleneck, sharp shards and all, deep into his face until he moves no longer. He then turns to the cursing, sobbing father who, in the face of this sudden and violent loss, no longer has any use for pleading and deference, and shoots him until he too lies dead. Just minutes after these brutal murders, freshly killed rabbits are produced from the men's bag. The Captain, with a little twinkle, order's the housekeeper to make rabbit stew. So then, we've located our bad guy.
Upon arrival at the mill, Ofelia, as all children must, takes an exploratory walk among the grounds. The place, through her eyes, wide with wonder, drips of magic. The light pouring down through the columns of trees is suspended here and there, along fluttering, floating leaves, bugs, motes of dust, as if the world were a big snowglobe, shaken to reveal glimmering bits of gold at every turn. There are stone ruins, rounded by time, that lead to an elaborate maze, the labyrinth of the film's title. In the background of these scenes is an insectlike stacatto flutter, the beating of tiny wings belonging to the brilliantly imagined fairies of this tale: stalky, slightly scary preying mantis creatures that, when the occasion arises, transform into traditional tinkerbell-esque tiny, winged people, protectors of magical secrets and, indeed, curious little girls. One visits late in the night, beckoning Ofelia back to the labyrinth, at who's center lies a giant, spiral staircase downward. There in the pit is a faun like we've never seen before. Tall, and decorated with features usually reserved for dark-ages-depictions of Satan, swirling horns, cat eyes, and a gravelly voice. Ofelia later remarks that he "smells like earth". This creature, this vision assures us that we have not landed in Narnia, where majestic lions and gentle beavers await. The faun tells Ofelia that she is a princess, lost to the world of the humans, and whose return has been long prophecied. The worry among the underworld is, however, that these centuries of comingling with flesh-and-blood humans have tarnished her, have robbed her of her innocence. Therefore, Ofelia, to gain re-entry to her kingdom must complete three tasks, all before the moon is full. In more ways than one, we are not sure he is to be believed. He entrusts Ofelia with a magical book, a book who's pages populate with ink and color only when touched.
The magical beings in this forest of Guillermo Del Toro's making are not limited to its mythical inhabitants. Mercedes, the housekeeper at the mill, played with great sympathy by Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien), is a study in decency, sacrifice. She smuggles food, medicine, and other necessities to the rebels in the wilderness. Ofelia, with girlish curiosity, spies her receiving a package of medicine from the resident doctor, a man who lives out the hippocratic oath, easing great and terrible suffering, even when, later, it costs him his life. Yes, this is a cast rife with heroes. While Ofelia completes the faun's tasks, Mercedes too, accomplishes her secret feats of daring, many of them mirroring the girl's. Surely it is no coincidence that both Ofelia and Mercedes are required, at separate times, to retrieve, or make use of, a key and a dagger. The two operate in their paralell worlds, which occasionally, and in the end, collide. You may wonder where Ofelia's mother is during all this mischief. She is bed-ridden, her pregnancy severe, an undeniable pall of death hanging over her. Captain Vidal, in another of his moments of great charm, commands his doctor tersely, and without further clarification, to "make sure the baby lives". Ah, true love.
Ofelia's first task is to rescue an ancient fig tree from the gross gluttony of an enormous toad, who has made the giant tree's roots his home. Doing this involves, among other indignities, crawling through sloppy, bug-filled mud to confront the toad, shove three magic rocks into his mouth, and somehow (it is not specified in advance) retrieve a sacred object from deep within the creature's belly. The bugs surrounding the toad are, of course, not tiny. They are instead fist-sized, shiny and black, and yet Ofelia remains undeterred, wading through them and then telling the toad, rather beautifully I thought, in an assured whisper "I am not afraid of you." Oh to have a daughter with this kind of pluck. So many children in American movies have their bravery diminished by sass, or a smirky, precocious one-liner. Ofelia's dire circumstances, both below and above ground, afford her no such luxury. She is the stoic lost princess, and we love her for it. Next, she must brave the attentions of a child-eating monster. This monster stands seven feet tall, naked, with loose folds of skin draped in odd places, a smooth, giant, faceless sharpei of a man. Faceless because his eyes are in the palms of his hands, requiring him to don them as a mask of sorts, in order to see, to pursue. And yet, next to El Capitan Vidal, this freakish cannibal is found wanting. Ofelia succeeds.
Meanwhile the resistance in the hills, becoming more brazen, have engaged the Captain's men in a fierce battle. A prisoner of war is taken, a stuttering rebel who we had occasion to meet earlier in the film, when the good doctor paid a surreptitious visit to the rebels. The Captain wastes no time in using the man's linguistic deficiency to torture and humiliate him. He tells the prisoner he may walk free, back to the mountains from whence he came, if only he can count to three without tripping on the words. There is no surer path to anger, than to view just this sort of vicious, cruelty to the weak. The attempt to count seemed a lifetime long in the viewing. He cannot muster the final number without arousing his halting impediment, and thus, the Captain begins his torturous, bruising work. The next morning the man is a mess, his limbs made into deep, purple mush, his face unrecognizable in its sheath of blood and ruin. The Captain sends for the doctor to give him something to prolong his life, not out of mercy, you understand, but to make for the additional extraction of information. To sound a political note, this is precisely why torture is always wrong. Always, no matter how good-intentioned its perpetrators, despicable. We are not made to participate in the slow, gruesome destruction of a man's life. Our doctor, bespectacled, world-weary, takes stock of the situation and sets into motion the man's death, via a euthanising injection, and his own, for this act of mercy will cost him his life. With dignity he explains his actions to Captain Vidal, his preference of morality over blind obedience, then picks up his physician's briefcase, strolling away, just a few steps before the crack of a gun sends a bullet into his back. We can be sure, in this case, that being shot from behind, is no mark of cowardice. Small comfort that.
No sooner does the doctor expire than are his services urgently needed, for Ofelia's mother has at last begun labor, and judging by the screaming to be heard, and the carrying to and fro of bloody sheets to be witnessed, outside her door, by little Ofelia no less, her prospects are not good. The Captain is solemnly informed "Your wife is dead". He beams brightly at the funeral, his name-carrying, legacy-extending baby boy in his arms.
With her purpose, her connections, to the actual world, now almost fully diminished, the faun returns to Ofelia with her third and final task. She must bring her newborn brother to the pit at the center of the labyrinth, why she is not told. This will be no easy task, for the Captain keeps the baby close at hand. Thankfully, the rebels, led by a discovered and escaped Mercedes, are closing in, providing the necessary distraction. Ofelia sedates the Captain, and under the cover of night and battlefield chaos, runs to the stone maze, her brother in tow. The faun awaits, holding the dagger she procured, as requested, from the child-eating monster. All that is required, he tells her, to complete her mission, and thus usher in her return to her magical throne, is but a few drops of innocent blood, a tiny prick of the baby by the formidable dagger he holds out for her. She refuses the faun's offer, and he vanishes. In the meantime, the Capitan, woozy but not felled by the sedative, is upon her. He snatches the baby back, as explosions boom outside the labyrinth. Ofelia stands, devastated. Captain Vidal then raises his pistol and shoots her at point blank range, so that she crumples along the edge of the pit, blood trickling freely from her chest, mouth. At the mouth of the maze, the rebels await. The Captain knows this dance of surrender, of defeat. He hands over the infant, preparing to meet his end, requesting that his child might know the hour, the minute of his death. Asking, as it were, for posterity. Mercedes, humble housekeeper made military commander, tells him coolly "he won't even know your name". The Captain is shot in the face and falls, instantly dead. We are happy to be rid of him.
They rush to Ofelia. They are too late. But as with all fairy tales, whatever is denied in this world shall be supplied in the next. Ofelia awakes to the faun, to her throne, a room of soaring golds and reds. She has passed the test, she will sit at the right hand of her father, forever, having been found worthy. The faun explains that her act of self-sacrifice, her blood instead of the baby's, was the true third task. She lives happily ever after, and yet the film does not end there. We return again to the pit, where, in the face of much death and war, there are many tears. Where there is no promise of magic, of eternity. We are left to wonder what was real. Did Ofelia, in the face of great pain and hopelesness, merely retreat into fantasy to cope? Was her salvation an escapist mechanism of her own invention? As is the case with all good fairy tales, it doesn't much matter.