If you tore Guillermo del Toro’s CV in two you could present both halves as the work of different directors. Here he returns to the intimate Spanish-language films that are a notch above his multiplex offerings.
Set five years after the Spanish Civil War, it’s the coming-of-age tale of young Ofelia, whose mother has married a sadistic fascist officer. We cross back and forth between Ofelia’s bleak home life and the world of her imagination, where a faun sets her challenges to test whether she’s really a princess of the underworld.
Every detail of the film’s often sumptuous look has been carefully considered. In the extras, del Toro reveals the tricks of his trade: the use of contrasting colour codes for the film’s two universes (blues and greys for brutal reality, golds and reds for the fantasy world), for example, and the use of mirroring, with details of one world echoed in another. You’ll love the creatures: the stick insect that transforms into a fairy; the monster covered in folds of saggy, scraggy skin whose only facial feature is a snout; and the mightily horned faun who looks like he’s sprung from the earth, all gnarled wood and furry moss. It’s a joy seeing del Toro talking you through the notebooks where he first scribbled sketches of these grotesques.
Like all the best fairytales, Pan’s Labyrinth is simplistic (the characters are essentially types – the noble resistance fighters, the evil fascist captain), but has the enduring resonance of myth. It feels like a film you could come back to again and again and discover new responses.