Roots, Bloody Roots

Guillermo Del Toro’s extraordinary grown-up fairytale Pan's Labyrinth arrives on a wave of expectation, having wowed the crowd into a half-hour standing ovation at Cannes, in the process garnering the best reviews of the Mexican directors career, and it doesn’t disappoint. It is a hugely rewarding film; a rich, dark, meaty stew perfect for a long winter’s night. The story, written by del Toro, opens in Northern Spain in 1944, where we meet a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), travelling with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) from the city to the mountain headquarters of Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a Franco Nationalist on a mission to eradicate the local Republican resistance. Ofelia’s mother, recently widowed, has recently married the sadistic Captain, who has demanded she travel to the hilltop camp so his son can be born in his father’s house. Ofelia has brought her only possessions, illustrated books of fairy tales, although she has been told she is getting too old for them.

Soon, the young girl meets a strange, clicking insect, who transforms into a mute fairy, which in turn guides her to a lost labyrinth, an underground maze, where she is greeted by an ancient faun (played by del Toro’s regular collaborator Doug Jones). The seemingly benign faun introduces himself as the guardian of a gateway to a fantasy world and explains that Ofelia is a reincarnation the daughter of the king of the fairies, an almost-forgotten princess of a world hidden just out of sight of what she knows as reality. Ofelia, who in her heart has always suspected as much, listens intently as the faun gives her a series of tasks to perform, in order to prove herself worthy, open the doors to the lost kingdom and fulfil her destiny. With her mother is confined to bed, suffering from the long journey and the lack of adequate care, Ofelia is taken into the care of the good-hearted, brave housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), a sister of the leader of the resistance committed to supplying the rebels with food and medicine from the army supply store. With the woods closing in around her, the lonely young girl is trapped; between childhood and adolescence, war and peace, between her dying mother and her raging adoptive father, between a sinister world of fantasy and a far more dangerous reality.

Del Toro expertly creates this dual universe; a magical fugue state of crumbling, ancient stone etched with arcane symbols, in harsh shadows and creaking wood peopled with fantastical creatures from the subconscious, and also his real, concrete world of infinite sadism, blind ideology and practical cruelty. His fluid control over both is exemplary. His lead actress, thirteen year old Banquero, gives a brilliant performance as the resourceful Ofelia, manifesting a child’s fears and uncertainties through little more than widened eyes and shortened breath. Beside her, Sergi López gives a startlingly monstrous performance as the wicked, ruthless fascist, a cunning, all-powerful executioner. This is a horror fantasy, as brutal and occasionally terrifying as the genre demands, but it is also a delicate allegory for Spain itself and the decades of totalitarian rule imposed on her people. Death is everywhere and hope is fleeting. There are moments in the film where redemption seems inevitable, with del Toro determined to whisk it away again before it can take root, just as he did in this film’s companion project, the little seen Devil’s Backbone. The film, photographed by Guillermo Navarro, looks astonishing with indelible creature effects and a finely crafted, all-pervading sense of unease, half-remembered mythologies and the true horror buried in the heart of even the sweetest fairy stories.

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