Sometimes you just know. I knew with Pan’s Labyrinth. I knew from what I’d seen and read and heard that I would like it. I wasn’t prepared for the effect it would have on me. Financially we were in a difficult place. In 2006 my wife as running her own business and as month’s end drew close, money habitually grew tight. Often very tight, occasionally too tight. Movies are oxygen to me; they’re a place of prayer and meditation; of self-discovery and of God speaking. So, at month’s end I gathered the fumes left in our bank account, took the underground the handful of stops from East Putney to Wimbledon in south-west London, to the only cinema in the vicinity showing Pan’s Labyrinth and handed over enough cash for a ticket safe in the knowledge there was enough in the fridge to see us to pay-day. Just.
It was a Monday night, and the small screen was only about half full. I sat in the back row, next to wall; immediately to my right was the entrance-way into the screen which divided the back 5 or so rows in half. As the trailers rolled a group of teenage boys wandered in, loud and laughing, clearly in the mood to poke fun at the film. Just the thing to set me on edge, nervous as I was anyway; I hoped beyond hope that the film would be worth the financial investment I’d made.
What unfolded before me needs some description for the uninitiated. It’s a Spanish-language film from Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, also the film’s writer. He’s a director most at home in the dark lands where fantasy and horror meet. Pan’s Labyrinth gives us a story set in Spain in 1944, in a rural backwater during the Spanish Civil War. The central figure of the story is a book-absorbed, imaginative young girl, the daughter of a woman recently remarried to the father of her unborn child, a sadistic army captain. They arrive at his base, where he’s leading a campaign against a small but dogged group of rebels; the daughter is visited by a faun, who tells her that she may be the long-awaited princess of a fantastic underground kingdom. She believes the faun, and has to undertake 3 treacherous tasks to prove she is the promised princess. Growing more fantastical with each task, the story of her maybe make-believe, maybe-real adventure runs in parallel with the drama of her mother’s pregnancy, her stepfather’s cruelty and his bid to quell the uprising.
In the space of 118 minutes a war story, mixed with family drama, mixed with fantasy and fairy-tale rolls across our vision. It tells a simple story well; the violence when it comes is real and hard-hitting but not too much. The fantasy is breathtaking, the mythical creatures tangible. The suspense is immaculate and unyielding, all the more remarkable for a film which gives us a key shot from near the story’s climax as the film’s opening frame.
Or does it? Therein lies the film’s power. Nothing is what it seems, and that’s what the film’s about. It’s about people, for better or worse, discovering who they are – just as a country sets a course of self-definition for the future. What is a civil war, after all, if it isn’t a country tearing itself apart over its own identity? The young girl at the film’s centre is at an age of discovery of who she is; her quest to discover if she is the mythical princess leads her to dark and scary places, as well as beautiful ones. She’s not unique, though; don’t we all visit similarly dark and beautiful places as we shape our own lives? It’s no coincidence that she’s guided through the story by a book of blank pages, the pages of which reveal their content as she needs it.
It all ends with uncertainty, fear, a flash of violence and a powerful shot of redemption. By the film’s end we still don’t know what’s real, but we know what’s true – which is far more important. The period in which I saw the film was the outset of what turned out to be the hardest part of my life so far, a set of experiences through which I wouldn’t want anyone to live. They broke me, they shaped me, they made me. That Monday in a Wimbledon cinema as the film’s closing credits scrolled and the haunting score played, the audience sat silently, no-one moving for at least two minutes as we all absorbed the power and beauty of what we’d seen.
I don’t have a favourite film; the answer to that often-asked question is too dependent on mood or feeling or stage or life to be definitive. But I have re-watched Pan’s Labyrinth many times since that Monday in 2006 and I still consider that for me it’s as close to a perfect film as I’ve ever seen. I can’t see a single error in it, not one mis-step. Maybe I’m biased, maybe it’s too wedded in my mind to the stage of life at which I saw it. So be it. Still, it nourishes and moves me, which is why I continually revisit it. My list of favourite films is a long and varying one, changing with mood and season and experience. In 7 years this film hasn’t shifted from my list.
Those teenage boys? Within 5 minutes of the film’s start, their vocal bravado had gone and I heard them no more. They sat silent at the film’s end with the rest of us, and as they walked quietly past me on the way out I saw each of them subtly, privately rub away at eyes which seemed suspiciously moist.
I rated this film 10/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com
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