Pan's Labyrinth is a fairytale set in post Civil War Spain. We follow the story of Ophelia, a young girl who, with her pregnant mother, is moved into the dark house of Captain Vidal. The film is told elegantly in a dual storyline. The first is set in real life - Carmen, Ophelia's mother, being bullied by Vidal and falling ill through pregnancy; Mercedes, servant to Vidal, befriending Ophelia and trying to do the right thing for the resistance fighters that Vidal is trying to crush; and Ophelia herself, wanting to meet her baby brother, but terrified by her new house and reluctant to call Vidal 'father'. The other storyline in the film follows Ophelia through a garden labyrinth into a dreamlike fairytale world, where she meets Pan, who believes that she is the soul of a long lost princess. Ophelia is invited to perform three tasks to prove she is royalty - each one more surreal and terrifying than the last. Both storylines collide at the end in a melancholic and ambiguous climax that leaves the watcher thoughtful, rather than thrilled.
I didn't watch Pan's Labyrinth at the cinema - in fact, it has curiously passed me by right up until last Saturday. I don't know where my reluctance stemmed from - maybe the foreign language aspect, maybe the massive hype accompanying its release, maybe the gore I heard about. Anyway, when we chose to watch a film on Saturday, the person recommending Pan's Labyrinth urged me to try at least the first half hour - if I was still reluctant, we could turn it off and I wouldn't really have lost any time.
Needless to say, the film was not turned off. In fact, by the time ten minutes had passed, I was enthralled by Ophelia's story. Pan's Labyrinth by turn appalled me, thrilled me, sickened me, delighted me - to me, it presents everything that a fairytale requires: a hero, a villain, magic, and a message.
One of my friends argued that the film was simply two separate stories mashed together by Guillermo del Toro, but I loved the way Ophelia travelled from dream to reality and back again. I admired the reflections between fairytale and life. I thrilled to the fact that Ophelia was fighting against two sinister individuals in the two facets of her life. I especially appreciated the fact that I am still wondering, days later, about whether Ophelia really did travel into a fairytale or whether she created the dreamlike world as a way of escaping the life she hated with Vidal.
I'm not ashamed to say that Pan's Labyrinth scared me silly at times, especially the monsters, both real and imagined - y favourite part of the film was also the part that scared me the most, this being during Ophelia's second task when she has to retrieve a knife without disturbing a slumbering nightmare. Gosh, that freaked me out!
The performances were universally extremely strong, and the fact they I had to follow their dialogue with subtitles took nothing away from their performances. I find that this is definitely the mark of how good a foreign language film is for me: if the subtitle aspect is non-obtrusive and I am not disturbed from the course of a film by reading along, then it is excellent!
Lastly, I just want to mention how stunningly beautiful this film is - especially all of the fairytale elements. How I regret not bothering to see this at the cinema! I definitely think this is the sort of film that HD and Blueray were invented for.
If you, like me, haven't watched Pan's Labyrinth - for whatever reason - I would urge you to change your mind and give it at least a try. It is horrific, scary, beautiful and melancholic. The story of Ophelia will stay with you long after the closing credits. Highly recommended.