"Hope in a hopeless world: a precious commodity indeed..."
“El Laberinto del Fauno” provides a deeply unsettling and satisfying experience. Director and writer Guillermo del Toro contrasts tasks from unreal childhood fairytales with the real and immediate trial of surviving evil to create an intoxicating atmosphere as potent as a vivid dream.The film is set in a period immediately following the Spanish Civil War. Militant fascists have all but exterminated pockets of resistance. We meet Ophelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl traveling with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) into the heart of an ancient forest to join with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López) who resides with his men in an abandoned mill.
The mill is a hastily adapted structure in the center of an old world. Ancient sculptures speckle the aged forest, and a centuries-old garden and labyrinth reside in the grounds adjacent to the mill.
Captain Vidal and his men have been assigned to destroy a small band of resistance fighters that hide in the forest. His objectives are clearly defined, and he is compelled to do anything to meet them. Vidal is a war criminal. He kills innocents, tortures, and terrorizes. Paranoia and pride have deprived him of any humanity.
Vidal’s personal objectives include fathering a son to continue his name. The Captain is ruthless in his quest for this “achievement” as well. He imperils the health of his infirm wife by demanding that she join him for the birth. Both military and private tasks are fueled by pride: his desire to be remembered as great.
Ophelia is only vaguely aware of the desires of the evil around her, but she immediately senses that she is in the presence of immorality. She escapes by entering the dark world of the fairy tale books she loves so dearly. She meets an ancient Faun deep in the center of a labyrinth who has been waiting for her. The faun believes that she is a lost princess and must prove her loyalty by performing three tasks.
This mythological world is a culmination of all the books that Ophelia has read and is a wonderful combination of Germanic, Russian, Eastern, and Spanish fairy tales. Flashes of Lewis Carroll and JRR Tolkien may jump to mind, but the source material is the stories that inspired them.
In the British newspaper, Guardian Unlimited, Guillermo del Toro credited British illustrator Arthur Rackham and the works of Goya (particularly his painting of Saturn devouring his son.) The power of these artists lies in their ability to capture the horror and beauty of the nightmares that linger between the conscious and unconscious hours. Guillermo del Toro has joined their ranks with this film.As Ophelia delves deeper into the fantastic and frightening fairy tales, the modern world becomes increasingly hopeless. The satyr exposes Ophelia to many frightening sights and dangerous situations, but the prize at the end of each undertaking is hope, and hope in a hopeless world is a precious commodity indeed.