What makes Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth so powerful is that it brings together to different sets of material, which are completely incompatible, yet insists on being true to both until the very end. On one hand there are fauns and faeries, on the other a sadistic fascist captain who will brutally murder with only the flimsiest of excuses. The nature of these two worlds is probably the scariest part of the film, for both contain incredible dangers that could get 11-year-old heroine Ofelia killed.
The faun seems at times both good and evil, yet what he really offers Ofelia is an opportunity to choose between the two. Her inability to follow his warnings almost get her killed by one of the most frightening, albeit initially ridiculous, monsters to grace any screen I’ve seen. And her refusal to accede to the faun’s requests in the end is her way of finding redemption when given a second chance.
But she is likewise tested in the real world. Finding out that the captain’s servant has been aiding the anti-Franco rebels, Ofelia refuses to divulge the information because she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her. The movie seems to be about the choices that Ofelia must make, that she must learn to be true to herself, even in the face of grave danger.
Though Ofelia is the only person who can see the faun or faeries, there is evidence to convince one that they are real enough. For one, the magical chalk that she uses to create doorways helps her escape a room that was guarded, something unlikely to have occurred otherwise. The mandrake root provided by the faun to help her mother seems to have positive results, and its discarding has the opposite.
I am at a loss in trying to explain exactly how this movie works, about what makes it so good. The visuals are stunning, like something out of a real nightmare, something attempted by the makers of The Cell, though this time with resounding success. Del Toro’s mastery is in how he is able to present these two vastly different worlds side-by-side, make it work, and make the result more than the sum of its parts.
What Tim O’Brien said is true. Stories can save us. Lover of stories and faerie tales, Ofelia creates a story for herself that becomes real, helps her survive the horrors of her surroundings, and in the end becomes real enough to save her. The conclusion can be interpreted in two separate ways, yet I choose to believe that she was saved. The film moved me, changed me, and I don’t think I will forget this feeling for a long time.