Pan’s Labyrinth

- Tim Bowron

from The Spark July 2007

An intriguing blend of political history and escapist fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth is undoubtedly the best film to hit cinemas here in NZ so far in 2007. Set during the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, it centres on the experiences of a young girl Ofelia and her mother who are now living in the household of Captain Vidal (a ruthless partisan of General Franco’s fascist regime), following the death of Ofelia’s father during the war.

Mexican director Guillermo del Torro does an excellent job of drawing out the horrors of fascism through the character of Captain Vidal, who ruthlessly tortures captured communist partisans and exhibits a fixation with all things mechanical (the glorification of technology and violence were hallmarks of futurism, an artistic movement often associated with fascism).

However at the same time as this is all taking place, the same conflict is also being played out in the magical world of the labyrinth which Ofelia alone is able to enter and in which she is given a number of tasks to carry out by “el fauno” (Pan), an ambiguous creature whose trustworthiness we are unsure of until very near the end of the film.

The technique of magical realism thus allows us to view these parallel worlds as somehow inextricably interrelated and allows the director to point up certain themes - in particular the wisdom or otherwise of blind obedience to authority. The image of the labyrinth is especially significant, having been used by many Latin American writers such as Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges who were concerned with the question of (lost) identity - whether individual, social or national. Perhaps most famously of all the image of the labyrinth was also deployed by Gabriel García Márquez in his novel about the last days of Simón Bolívar, El General en su Laberinto.

Leaving these thematic considerations aside though Pan´s Labyrinth is most striking for its startling cinematography and visual effects, which bring the magical world of the labyrinth to life. Combined with the haunting original score of Javier Navarrete which packs a powerful emotional punch, this is certainly a film not to be missed.

While for an insight into the political history of Spain during this period I would still recommend Ken Loach´s Civil War epic Land and Freedom, in terms of sheer spectacle and beauty Pan´s Labyrinth has very few equals.

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