WHAT LURKS UNDER THE BED?: And can Ofelia overcome it?
Guillermo del Toro starts El laberinto del fauno|Pan’s Labyrinth by entering the mind of a child. The camera hovers over the bloody face of 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), eddies downward to her eyes and into the black void of a pupil, descending into the subterranean kingdom of the dead. “Once upon a time,” a voiceover begins, and the camera rises up through a womblike cave into the sunshine of Spain 1944, in the aftermath of the Civil War and near the end of World War II, where Ofelia is reading the fairy tale that’s being narrated.
As in del Toro’s previous two films, El espinazo del diablo|The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Hellboy (2004), the objective facts of history, the dates and places and events, can’t contain the chthonic forces that shape them, the demons and fairies that lurk in a child’s books and her imagination and under her bed. But here the director succeeds, as he didn’t before, in his fusion of innocence and evil, nightmare and delight, in one of the most cinematically exuberant films of 2006, one that blurs the line between lucid fable and surreal enigma.
Fairy tales tend to be allegories about the consequences of disobedience, and this isn’t an exception, though who is to be obeyed and why remain ambiguous. Certainly Ofelia’s martinet stepfather, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), a sadistic Fascist officer assigned to wipe out the last vestiges of Republican resistance in a frontier outpost, doesn’t qualify as a legitimate authority. He’s creepy enough in his icy greeting of Ofelia and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), when they first arrive at the post. And more so when he tinkers with a pocket watch (shades of del Toro’s 1993 Cronos|Chronos and Captain Hook). But when he brutally murders two poachers suspected of subversion, he forfeits whatever sympathy López’s arch, gleefully malignant performance might have mustered for him.
Ofelia seeks refuge from this unpleasant domestic situation in fantasy. Actually, the fantasies seek her. A giant insect, though not as imposing as the ones in Mimic, flitters up to her at bedtime and metamorphoses into a fairy; it’s a cross between Jiminy Cricket and Tinker Bell. This envoy leads her to the labyrinth of the title, where a towering faun (Doug Jones) bent like a folding ruler tells her she’s the daughter of the King of the Underworld. To prove she has not gone over to the mortal side, however, she must fulfill the inevitable Three Tasks. Should she obey? And what are these tasks testing?
Meanwhile, spies and guerrillas and Fascists clash, crises that indirectly intersect with Ofelia’s encounters with a disgusting giant toad, a cannibalistic monstrosity who looks (among other things) like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son, and a squirming mandrake root — just a few of the stunning creations that are bound to get viewers searching through their volumes of Jung and Freud. Arresting though they may be, these mind-boggling effects, shot with limpid mystery by Guillermo Navarro and accompanied by chitinous whirs and crackles on the uncanny soundtrack, don’t disrupt the double narrative but intensify it. When the two tales intersect, neither the nightmare of history nor the nightmare of childhood offers refuge from the other, but in one, at least, innocence proves triumphant.