The world of dreams is not distinct from the world of reality. One does not exist separately from the other: in fact the mad and the mundane are intertwined. So it goes in life and in Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that is less a straight transition from the physical realm to the realm of imagination and more an exploration of the ways the two planes exist within the other. It is a startling achievement, not only a brilliant film, but also a brilliant exploration of the very nature of creativity, and the boundaries of the corporeal.
As is his wont, writer/director Guillermo Del Toro never draws a line between the harsh reality of his setting – Spain, immediately after the Civil War – and the more fantastic elements of his plot. Our young heroine Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a dreamer in the mode of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, moves out to the country with her mother, commanded there by her new stepfather, the brutal Captain Vidal (Sergi López.) It is through Ofelia’s eyes that we see the world, and as a result, the darkly fantastic universe she discovers within the labyrinth of the title is treated with as much weight as the guerrilla infighting breaking out around her. She sees both as equal, so the film in turn treats them as such.
The film is full of visual and thematic echoes, as the real world informs the dream world and vice versa. Just as soon as the book presented to Ofelia by the faun begins to bleed, so does her mother in the other room. Just as the rose on top of a thorny mountain in a story Ofelia tells represents good and kindness, so does she herself come to represent innocence and beauty. Even the movie’s famous dinner scene, featuring Doug Jones in a stunningly hideous performance as the sallow-skinned Pale Man, is a virtual copy of a previous dinner scene featuring Ofelia’s stepfather at the head of the table.
In this way, Pan’s Labyrinth, is a love-letter dedicated to the art of creativity, but it never feels self-indulgent or overwrought. Indeed, although the film has many cerebral pleasures, like any good horror film – or indeed, any good fairy tale – it works in the gut and in the heart as much as it works in the mind. There is a visceral punch to the film, not only in its scenes of shocking violence, but also in its climax, and the tender finale is soaked in emotion.
“Magic does not exist,” Ofelia’s mother desperately tells her at one point. “Not for you, or me, or anyone.” But the film does not share this view. Indeed, by the time it is over, Pan’s Labyrinth comes to resemble a tribute to the magical; a beacon burning for romantics, artists and believers the world over.