This week’s Pile of Shame is a little thematically different than the other entries in this now long-running series. Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t often paraded in front me and so few people have even heard of it let alone watched it. Often times the movies on my list would be recommended and shouted from every reachable rooftop ad nauseam to the point where I said “okay already!” and made this series. But Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie I’ve only heard whispers about and seen some disturbingly intriguing screenshots of. I also knew that it was one of the highest rated movies of all time and was directed by Guillermo del Toro who I’m a fan of, but I only found out right before I watched it that the entire thing from start to finish is in Spanish. Other than those details, I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into and let me tell you, it was quite a trip. I’m also going to keep this as spoiler-free as possible since this is a relatively unknown movie.
The movie follows a girl called Ofelia who was forcefully moved to a Spanish post by her mother who married a tyrannical and almost comically villainous captain. She then wanders into the woods and finds a labyrinth that housed a mysterious creature called a faun who tells her that she’s has a princess’ soul inside her and she needs to complete three tasks in order to achieve eternal life in her father’s magical kingdom. If you think that sounds like a fairytale, you’d be exactly right. It’s a simple enough magical premise, but it’s complemented by a genuinely bleak and violent backdrop reminiscent of GRIMM fairytales and gritty reimaginings of classic fairytales where there is no happily ever after.
At first, I thought this was going to be a movie for kids. A coming-of-age drama that young children and teenagers would watch, but then I saw two men getting shot executioner style in gory detail and realised that no, this wasn’t a kids movie. There are two distinct worlds in Pan’s Labyrinth, one of reality and one of mysticism. Within the Spanish post, the army is trying to squash a guerrilla uprising and this task is led by a sadistic and borderline awful captain who has seemingly no remorse and not a compassionate bone in his body. Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with his child and all he focuses on is that he’ll have a son that will bear his illustrious name and his bloodline may continue. While that seems like a pure intention, it’s mostly just selfish and egotistical.
Ofelia’s tasks take her through some incredibly jarring scenarios that include horrifying monsters and magical powers. Even the world of magic in this movie is influenced by the dark and the disturbing. It creates this strange dichotomy between the vindictive nature of man and the wonder of the magical. The “real” portions of the movie are upsetting and dramatic at the best of times with the hubris of man being properly explored through the characters. Ofelia’s quest for immortality can be an analogy for her desire to escape from the clutches of an unfair system that is bent on destroying her innocence and individuality. She’s caught in the very ugly parts of adulthood where concessions need to be made and power is absolute. Her step-father shoots innocent people without a shred of remorse or compassion and only cares about his own pride.
If you cannot tell already, this is a heavy movie. It’s a constant barrage of grim circumstances to the point where it almost feels too much. The tension within the scenes is palpable and you’ll find relief in the few sprinklings of hope that are laying around. What the sum of this movie makes is an unforgettable experience that is decidedly unique in its execution. I did find myself predicting a lot of events that transpire, but I think this instinct comes from other dark narratives I’ve experienced after this movie’s release in 2006. What you’ll ultimately find is a dark twisted human narrative, a fairytale that has monsters in it that will give you nightmares along with a giant pang of curiosity and mystery that is structured and designed so beautifully and intelligently that you’ll walk away from this movie filled with wonder.
It’s no surprise that it’s a critical triumph because you can’t really find much to fault. Once you think you do, you realise that it was done with some level of meaning behind it. It’s just a modern adult fairytale that I’ve never had the opportunity to witness before. Even the Spanish I didn’t mind one bit because it added a degree of authenticity to the movie that was genuine. The CGI is a relic of its time at certain moments, but it doesn’t take away from the viewing experience whatsoever. Additionally, the more traditional costumes and makeup make some of these characters and monsters come to life in a different way.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a daunting watch because of its thematic elements and the fact that it’s in a foreign language. However, if you give it a chance you will find something that can’t quite be compared to anything else and will stick in your mind long after the credits roll. If you haven’t given this a chance yet, you owe it to yourself.
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