By David D'Arcy
Pan's Labyrinth is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War,
a bloody war in a century of bloody wars, which, because the war which followed it was bloodier on a far greater scale, tends to be overlooked if you're not Spanish.
The setting says something crucial about Guillermo Del Toro. There's plenty of fantasy in his films, but that's far from all there is. You don't use the aftermath of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War as a backdrop (in this film or in Devil's Backbone, set at the war's outbreak) if you're churning out escapism, unless you happen to be a diehard fascist or a diehard communist who sees ideological purity in this battle between good and evil. It's probably safe to say that this director is neither.
In Pan's Labyrinth, the war still hasn't ended in 1944 - a key date, given that the most important turn against Hitler in Western Europe came in that year. Republican anti-fascist partisans are fighting an insurgency (God forbid) against an army unit that has taken over a farmhouse in the hills that are supposed to be in the forests of Navarra in the North. This triumphant Spanish army would be in power until 1975 - the longest-ruling fascist regime of the 20th century. Not a badge of honor.
The soldiers who have slaughtered most of their opposition have also taken prisoners, in this case the wife and child of one of their victims. (They are not precisely prisoners, but seem to have been carried away as spoils of war, evoking images of the Roman victories of two thousand years earlier. No coincidence - Spain is full of Roman ruins.) The wife (Ariadna Gil), widow of a tailor, is carrying the child of the sadistic Captain Vidal who is in command of the army unit. Her daughter, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), already fears and loathes the man whom she's told to call her father. She'll find much more to despise as she sees more of the man at work.
Few of the characters will survive Del Toro's tale of good battling evil. The spiritual world, populated by sprites, a faun (Doug Jones) and other creatures, is a refuge for the young Ofelia. This is the labyrinth, after all. (It's odd that Del Toro hasn't thrown a priest into the mix, since the Church aligned itself with the fascists and Catholicism held a stranglehold on the official spiritual life of Spain for so long.)
Besides being a fairy tale, this is a war movie, and a violent one, and you can look at it as an ode to an insurgency. (In Iraq, we've moved from insurgency to civil war; here we move from civil war to insurgency.) Everyone - mother, daughter, doctor, maid and cook - is conspiring against the army of occupation, which will be the government for 30 years to come. The vain phallocratic Captain (Sergi Lopez) galvanizes the household in opposition.
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