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On Dec. 29, 2006, after a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth hit theaters in limited release. The film went on to claim three Oscars at the 79th Academy Awards, for art direction, makeup and cinematography. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
The bizarre beasts in a young girl’s phantasmagorical imagination are nothing compared to the ruthless brutes that populate her day-to-day reality, so it’s no wonder she wishes to escape in Guillermo del Toro’s engrossing fable Pan’s Labyrinth.
The story is set in Spain in 1944 as Franco’s victorious fascist forces bear down with punishing weight on any who resist. The film’s extraordinary fantasy sequences, in which the girl must complete three arduous tasks, offer a semblance of hope and salvation compared to the short life expectancy in a merciless military state.
Definitely not for children and in fact more of a horror film, Pan’s Labyrinth will thrive on the festival circuit and should find appreciative audiences in art houses everywhere.
Rooted in the grim pessimism of totalitarian Spain, the film begins with a prologue about the fate of a long-lost princess and the promise of her return. As the tale is told, a pregnant and sickly woman, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrive at a military outpost commanded by Carmen’s officious new husband, Capt. Vidal (Sergi Lopez).
Ofelia still pines for her late father while her mother entreats her to embrace the stiff and unpleasant captain, although it soon becomes apparent that he is more interested in fathering a son than in being a husband or father to the girl.
Worse than that, he reveals himself as a monster who kills captured rebels with extreme brutality and utter disdain for their existence. The camp is threatened by a gathering number of guerillas aided secretly by their leader’s sister, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who is the captain’s chief housekeeper. As Carmen’s health deteriorates, a humane doctor (Alex Angulo) becomes a regular visitor, although where his sympathies lie remains to be seen.
As Vidal’s merciless character is revealed, Ofelia finds herself captivated by fairies that lead her to an ancient maze leading down to a labyrinth where she encounters a fearsome but talkative faun (Doug Jones). He claims she is a legendary lost princess and she must pass three tests in order to claim immortality.
These involve tackling a monstrous toad that has swallowed a key; braving a faceless creature with eyes in his hands who sets out a tempting banquet and devours anyone who tastes a single morsel; and a classic dilemma that requires spilling the blood of an innocent.
As Ofelia faces these challenges, her mother struggles with an increasingly difficult pregnancy and the captain devises ever-more-gruesome ways to torture captive resistance fighters. The girl’s adventures are as real to her as the surrounding horrors, and Del Toro’s great accomplishment is in weaving the two together so convincingly.
The visual effects are mesmerizing and the harsh drama of the military camp has its horrific moments of torture and death, as well as when the captain sews together his cheek after being slashed by an assailant.
The performers are all good, with Baquero poised and beautiful as Ofelia and Verdu vital and spirited as the rebellious Mercedes. Lopez gives an extraordinary performance as the bestial captain, an irredeemable villain to rank with Ralph Fiennes‘ Nazi in Schindler’s List. — Ray Bennett, originally published May 27, 2006 after the title’s Cannes festival debut.
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