You mustn’t eat anything.
To say that Pan’s Labyrinth was “unrelentingly horrible” would not be entirely true. To say that its ending was sad would be entirely subjective. To say that it was “wicked awesome” would be somewhat immature yet also entirely accurate.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie with violence of the variety that sends entire theatres into repulsion; a movie where the right person getting stabbed can elicit cheers from the audience; a movie where the bad isn’t always bad and the good not always good.
Through Pan’s Labyrinth we are forced to remember that childhood can be a dark and terrible place, and that unless dangers are made real then nothing can be learned.
In 1944 Spain, Ofelia travels to the base of operations of her new stepfather, who wishes his new son to be born in the same place as he. Ofelia, who has always been fond of fairy tales, meets a faun who tells her that she is the long lost princess of an ancient kingdom. She must prove herself as more than mortal through three trials. Meanwhile the insurgency is being abetted from within Ofelia’s new home, and her stepfather becomes increasingly sadistic.
What I liked about Pan’s Labyrinth above all else is that the truth of its situation does matter. It does not empirically claim, as some fantasies do, that the faun is real or false; this is immaterial. If the fantasies are real to Ofelia, then they are real enough for the audience.
One can forgive Ofelia for wanting to escape into the worlds that the faun and his fairies guide her to: the Spanish civil war is bad and her stepfather is worse. If one had the choice between a man who frequently beats people’s faces in with wine bottles and a battle with a particularly dirty toad, they would generally choose the toad any day. When you’re more scared of men with guns and a variety of torture implements than you are of a monster that keeps its eyes in its hands and bites the heads off fairies, what does that tell you? It tells you that the real world is a terrible, terrible place.
It is strange that the reality is for the most part more compelling than the fantasy. This is the sort of fantasy that existed back before children were wimps; the sort of fantasy that invented characters the likes of Jimmy Suckathumbs and countless other nightmare. People can be killed in horrible ways in fairytales, and del Toro is not afraid to make this so here. The adventures into the fantastic are sparing by comparison to lengthy scenes in which people are repeatedly brutalised and women constantly rebuffed.
At times, Ofelia’s story seems almost like an afterthought; the maid Mercedes may even be the female lead. It’s not exactly the right tack for me to take, but the “real” parts of the story seem more important, possibly because they’re more brutal than anything that fairy eating fantasy can come up with.
Pan’s Labyrinth runs the risk of being perceived as too hardcore, because it is incredibly violent. There are only a few mercy cuts: most of the torture is shown on screen. Most of the recovery from torture is shown on screen, including a particularly memorable self-administration of stitches. All of the important deaths are visited in intimate detail. It becomes harrowing to watch in the way that it would not have been had I had less of a sunshine and lollipops upbringing (although I suspect that makes me somewhat more human).
However, every cloud has a silver lining. This cloud has more of giant black inside and is more gilt edged, but that gilt is magnificent to look at. It makes all of the trials worthwhile.
So, while many terrible things happen in Pan’s Labyrinth, and some may think that its ending is horrid, it eventually turns into an excellent blend of the fantastic and the depressingly real. That its two storylines that have been working at cross-purposes eventually converge creates one of the more satisfying and touching endings in recent times. That’s just my reading; that Del Toro allows you to make up your own mind shows his respect for the audience. Pan’s Labyrinth therefore accelerates past its horror into the realm of glorious cinema. If you can stand it, you should definitely watch it.