RETRO REVIEW: El Laberinto del Fauno (2006)

Spanish Language Release Poster – Warner Bros.

The following is a retro review of Guillermo Del Toro’s modern classic El Laberinto del Fauno

Fairy tales and all things magic exist right at the very edges of what we consider to be real. The wonder and horrors of the world equally represent the emotional current with which magic — light and dark — resides. There is much to be said about the horrific nature of our collective understanding of fairy tales. There is a brutality that flows through many true fairy tales.

Indeed, it may be the reason why some tend to put two fairly different genres so close together. The horror-fantasy genre has a wide spectrum, and no filmmaking auteur is more apt at riding the line between the two than Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro.

Del Toro always confidently rebels against the notion that life is unlike the magic of dreams, of childhood wonder, and, indeed, of fantasies. In opting to find that bit of magic in life through filmmaking, Del Toro tries his hand at relaying realities with a tinge, or a touch, of what more could live behind the curtain, just outside of view, something quite extraordinary and intangible.

Finding comfort and kinship in the fascinating monsters of his childhood dreams and nightmares, while explaining the cruelties of real life. Ghosts symbolizing love once lost or a past sought after is not as scary as the madmen terrorizing our society. Bizarre and devilish oddities from fables are not nearly as dangerous as a gun in the hands of a man mad with power or an unruly system run amok.

Guillermo Del Toro has throughout his career as a filmmaker sought to rebel against wicked institutions by finding comfort in the oddities of life as expressed via bizarre creatures. And no film expresses that soft touch of Del Toro better than his hauntingly beautiful Spanish-language masterpiece El Laberinto del Fauno — which is also known as Pan’s Labyrinth — the kind of movie that both demands and deserves a standing ovation.

Originally intended to be the female companion piece to his own film El Espinazo del Diablo (a gothic horror film about orphan boys) — two films that both revolve around the Spanish Civil War, giving the perspective of children during a violent stage in Spanish history — El Laberinto del Fauno is a much superior picture. It is, quite frankly, one of the best dark fantasies ever made.

El Laberinto del Fauno takes place after the Spanish Civil War, when Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother Carmen (played by Ariadna Gil) meet up with the fascist officer Captain Vidal (played by Sergi López) who has married Carmen and is now Ofelia’s stepfather. Vidal is unconcerned with Carmen’s health and completely uninterested in Ofelia. All that matters to him is his legacy — his son being carried by Carmen. Therefore, Ofelia has a lot of time on her hands, most of which is used in the forest, where she is led by a stick insect to an old faun who fills Ofelia’s ears with stories of greatness and wonder. To him, she is a princess who needs to complete three tasks so that she can achieve immortality and open a portal to another world.

All of this goes on while, in the background, Vidal’s housekeepers are actively supporting Spanish rebels hiding in the woods preparing an attack on Vidal’s troops. As such, in El Laberinto del Fauno there are two parallel narratives, one based entirely in realism and another concerned with the fantastical elements introduced by the stick insect and the faun. Del Toro balances these narratives elegantly and manages to intertwine them flawlessly. Accompanying this wonderful story of a girl finding maturity by rejecting the adult world — through comfort, femininity, and fantasy — is a wonderful musical score from Javier Navarrete, which is constructed around this idea of the dark fantasy being a lullaby.

The ending is quite spectacular as well. It is an ending that neatly references Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic short story The Little Match Girl. And this film seems to ask a question about the central character: is the main character seeing the world from the right lens only available to a select few, most of which are children, or is it all make belief? While Del Toro definitely seems to suggest that the fantasy is to be believed, it is an ambiguous ending. I don’t think Del Toro forcefeeds us an interpretation of the ending.

If you want to read this ending as Maribel Verdú’s character did, then there is room enough for that different interpretation. I love that about the film, and it makes it interesting to rewatch it over and over again — to look into the various clues dropped in there by Del Toro and their importance to the overall narrative.

I was a big fan of this film when it came out. It hit that appropriately tender spot between fantasy and horror and it always worked for me, even as an adolescent. However, when I finally rewatched it this month, I was so spellbound and struck with awe that I found myself watching it twice in a row.

It is that fantasy masterpiece that you remember, all of its tricks still work, and it is a beautiful tribute to the stories that we have all grown up on. I genuinely believe that no one else could have made this story this touching, this wonderful, this transformative. It indicates that Guillermo Del Toro is the modern maestro of fantasy storytelling on the big screen.

10 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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