Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
Spanish Title: El Laberinto del Fauno
In the much-lauded Pan's Labyrinth, writer-director Guillermo del Toro plunges us head-first into the fragile worldview of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). The film opens with a beautiful lullaby being overpowered by the sound of heavy painful breathing. We learn of the setting --- Spain in 1944 wherein the last remnants of the revolution are in the remote mountains. The first recognizable image we see is the protagonist Ofelia, her face and hands bloodied; it is quite apparent that the initial heavy breathing we heard came from her and that she is dying. It's a cruel portrait; the little girl is lovely in her youthful innocence (her eyes desperately clinging for a dimming sparkle of hope) yet in that precious age, has met an untimely violent death. It's enough a warning that this film is definitely not a fairy tale for it aches with such resounding and poignant realism, it's almost unbearable to watch further.
But of course I do, quite thankfully at that for the rest of the film is just wonderful. We learn of the fairy tale of a princess that escaped from her mythical kingdom, and upon reaching the surface, died as a mortal. Ofelia and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are on their way to a remote mill wherein the fascists under Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez) are fighting off the last few remaining rebels. The mill estate, surrounded by hectares of forests, contain several secrets including a labyrinth wherein Ofelia will meet an ancient faun who identifies her as the lost princess in the fairy tale.
There's a gorgeous intertwining of imagination and reality here. Those two aspects of the film symbiotically thriving alongside each other; each giving the other depth, meaning and context. The easiest interpretation is to delegate Ofelia's fantastical adventures as exclusively within the realm of her imagination. Such adventures are merely defense mechanisms against an oppressive situation she has landed in. However, the child in me opts to probe further; suggesting that the fantasy and the reality do co-exist, at least, for the sake of the protagonist whose demise has been announced so very early on. True, the fantastic elements are defense mechanisms or instruments for survival against that particular situation for the young girl, but more than that, those elements have real linkages with the historic scenario --- that the faun, the fairies, and those other magical beings' slight existence in the world are reminders of this world's coming-of-age, of it's difficult path into achieving a complete worldliness and mundanity; and the pay-off is the loss of innocence, and of the ability to conjure the magical.
Del Toro consistently draws battles between the mundane and innocence. Notice that Ofelia's three tasks are always conflicted by earthly needs and virtues --- of keeping a dress clean for dinner, of her worries for her mother, of hunger, of blood relations. In Ofelia's mission to regain her status as a princess, there is a need for her to withdraw from the world, to sacrifice inch by inch a portion of what keeps her human. Rationality should have made the mission easy for Ofelia, being trapped in that mortal world ruled over by the Capitan, who personifies everything that is wrong in her world, and complicated further by her mother's difficult pregnancy and a forced knowledge on the eventualities of the rebellion. However, it is that undeniable humanity of Ofelia that makes those tasks difficult. Along with the rest of the world, Ofelia is also on that verge of growing up and of experiencing the pains and aches of the world unshielded. She's in her most volatile; which is the reason why her world-view is always undecided (escapist or resolute; fantastical or realist; aloof or connected).
By crafting a Capitan who's almost un-humanly vicious, he commits a comparable paternal affection to the shrewd faun, with its jerky gestures that suggest decades of immobility. Additionally, the monsters, from the eternally hungry giant toad to the severely savage pale monster, become reasonably tame to the arbitrariness of the Capitan, considering that in his appearance, he elicits an inherited posture of pride and debonairness. Quite interestingly, the Capitan shares a trait with one of children's literature's most popular villains, Captain Hook --- that affinity with the tick-tocking of a pocket watch which in both cases appear in close encounters with death. In a sense, the affinity between the two characters connote a similarity in their roles in both tales. Capitan Vidal is the personification of the world's strict mundaneness as against Ofelia's fanciful escapism; the same way as Captain Hook is an adult in Peter Pan's Never Never Land.
Of course, there are other allusions to other fairy tales (Alice in Wonderland, being one of the most obvious). It's actually quite a nice touch as del Toro eagerly tells his dark depressing tale set in a dark depressing time, yet subconsciously, grants us comfort by inviting our collective imaginations (as charged by those familiar tales) to delve deeper into the connections of those tales with our respective lives.
These same fairy tales have allowed Ofelia to gain a prolonged innocence that salvaged her from the violent affairs of her adult wards. Much like the melodies that lulled us to peaceful sleep, these remainders of that far-away childhood gives us comfort from the rigors of the day-to-day world we've grown up to live in. The stories, the lullabies, that earnest sparkle of hope, and that final withdrawal from a world descending into mundaneness, were the keys Ofelia needed to open the gate to that mythical kingdom.