Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) (Reprint) – Ace Long Review

I wrote this review several years ago. It was originally published in the August 2008 issue of AVENues. I have edited the punctuation slightly and added the star and ace ratings for this post.

El Laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú
Written & Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Mexico, Spain, U.S.A., 2006

El Laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, in English) has the kind of innocence one expects from a children’s film. The Spanish movie features noble heroes, despicable villains, an alternate universe full of magic and wonder – and a lack of any content remotely sexual. The difference is that Pan’s Labyrinth is not a children’s film. It contains graphic scenes of violence, bloodshed, and murder. Yet, despite its R-rating, it retains a childlike sensibility on matters of sex and romance. Why?

Set during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia, a little girl whose mother, Carmen, has just married an army captain named Vidal. Ofelia dislikes Captain Vidal, a ruthless officer who goes to brutal lengths to crush the rebellion.

There is only one vague allusion to sexuality in the movie: Ofelia criticises her mother for remarrying, and Carmen tries to explain that a woman gets “lonely”. When Ofelia says, “You have me; you were never alone!”, her mother only smiles and says she is too young to understand. That’s as may be, but we are inclined to agree with Ofelia. In contrast to many films where romantic union resolves all problems, Carmen’s marriage is the beginning of hers. Her relationship with Vidal is fraught with conflict and leads to her painful and dangerous pregnancy. Ofelia runs treacherously afoul of her new stepfather, who begins by ignoring her but later threatens her life. Implicit in this is a sharp condemnation of patriarchy and the heteronormativity that supports it. “Lonely” or not, the females would be better off alone, we conclude, than with such a man as this.

Despite this apparent scepticism, the movie is far from cynical about relationships. Indeed, the heart of the story is in the different kinds of bonds between the characters. Played out against the brutality of war, these relationships are what save them from inhumanity. One example is the surprising friendship that forms between Ofelia and the serving woman Mercedes. Ofelia clings to Mercedes with the blind devotion of a lost child, and Mercedes reciprocates, proving that years of struggle and grief have not hardened her heart.

This humanity is shared by all the good guys. The rebels are not just comrades-in-arms, but friends who look after one another. Mercedes and her brother worry about each other. So do Ofelia and her mother. And, perhaps most touchingly, Ofelia even expresses concern for the unborn sibling whose gestation is causing her mother so much pain. In contrast, Vidal, the chief villain, is cold to Ofelia and seems to view Carmen as little more than a breeding machine.

Why would a movie that glorifies interpersonal relationships forgo a romantic storyline? It could be because the main character is a child. The adults who make up the film’s target audience are invited to identify with a pre-adolescent heroine who knows nothing of sexual love. Many children’s films like to include romantic storylines, providing children with a kind of idealised image of adulthood. Pan’s Labyrinth, an adult movie without a romantic storyline, provides a kind of idealised image of childhood. Perhaps it is not exactly truthful: the world is not neatly divided between heroes and villains, and children are not as innocent as we like to imagine. But what it strives to do is to reconnect us with our childlike passions: affection – not for romantic partners, but for parents, siblings, and friends; an uncomplicated concept of right and wrong; true horror at the brutality of war.

It’s refreshing to see that adult movies can still be idealistic. Likewise, it’s refreshing to see a movie that spends so much time on relationships without any perfunctory romantic coupling. It’s not that romantic coupling is bad, but it’s been over-glorified, becoming an end in itself for too many movies. It’s a nice change to see a film that can be shamelessly sentimental about friendship, family, political idealism – anything except sex.

4 Stars; 4 Aces

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