The Reel Deal – Pan’s Labyrinth

Release date: May 15, 2007

Studio: Universal Studios Home Video

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 8 out of 10

A quick scan through your local video store will probably reveal lots of war films you can rent. Most of them have battle scenes and explosions, steely-eyed soldiers creeping along night-shrouded beaches or up rocky hills. They try to portray the reality–the horror and brutality–of war. Sometimes, the cinematic explosions and hails of gunfire come close: they give audiences just the slightest glimpse into what it must actually be like to experience warfare.

And every so often, a film comes along that does away with the explosions and heroics and yet saturates the screen–and the viewer–with a sense that this is about as close as you can come without actually being there. Pan’s Labyrinth is one of those films.

It is 1944, and rural Spain is still reeling from the country’s civil war. In a trail of cars that winds through the woods, army officers are escorting a woman and child to their new home in an old mill. The girl is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is taking them to live with Ofelia’s new stepfather, Captain Vidal. Vidal runs the military post That’s been set up at the mill, and he has two burning passions: to exterminate the anti-fascist rebels hiding in the hills, and to ensure that his new bride delivers the healthy son that he’s been craving.

From the moment the reluctant Ofelia steps from the car and faces her stepfather, the sense of dread is palpable: she is completely at the mercy of a cruel, dominant foe, and the vulnerability that their meeting portrays is symbolic of the struggle between the ragtag rebels and Franco’s army. Sergi Lopez plays Vidal with chilling realism, and his understated performance will stay with you for days.

To escape her lonely and oppressive new world, Ofelia takes refuge in a mysterious labyrinth that lies in the mill’s neglected garden. The characters in her beloved fairy tales come to life and, guided by a dragonfly, she meets The Faun (Doug Jones), an eerie satyr that could be friend or foe–or both. The quest that The Faun sends her on parellels the covert efforts of some of the rebels. Like Ofelia, the housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) lives in dangerous proximity to Captain Vidal, and her secret efforts to aid her fellow rebels puts her in constant danger.

While Ofelia’s quest is purely one of childish fantasy, Mercedes is in very real danger, and the scene where Vidal discovers her true sympathies is troubling (but–without giving anything away–ultimately satisfying).

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is categorized as fantasy, but it is really a film about war, and the hope that endures even when people are faced with fear and oppression.

If You’re not a fan of subtitles, you’ll probably want to give this Spanish-language film a pass. But Pan’s Labyrinth is a visually gorgeous and richly layered film, and one whose ending will definitely take you by surprise.