Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

plWritten and Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a bookish, imaginative little girl trapped in a harsh world. She and her pregnant mother have come to live with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), an officer in Franco’s army. The Spanish Civil War recently ended, and Franco’s fascist regime is battling tenacious groups of resistants taking refuge in the forest.

You might suspect that being one of Franco’s generals is a role that would require a special penchant for brutality. But Captain Vidal goes above and beyond the call of duty.

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I was blown away by Sergi López’s performance as Vidal. From his first moments onscreen, when he cooly greets his pregnant wife and lightly lays a proprietary hand on her swollen belly, we have a strong sense of what kind of man we’re dealing with. From that moment, I was chilled and my stomach was in knots every time he was onscreen. He conveys so much with a mere gesture or cold shift of his gaze. And he continually looks at an elegant but shattered watch, which we later learn was a legacy from his father, who was killed in battle. An eloquent metaphor for a morally bankrupt regime which seems unaware that its time has almost ended. As the movie progresses, we see more and more of the captain’s sadism played out onscreen, with tragic results.

I was even more impressed by Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. At first she seems unaware of the dramatic and frightening political events unfolding around her. But she’s certainly afraid of her stepfather and scared for her mother and unborn brother.

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She escapes into a gorgeous but eerie, dangerous world of dreamlike fantasy that blends seamlessly with “real life.” It also mirrors the external world. As Franco’s enemies carry out acts of resistance, punctuated by explosions or acts of quiet dignity, Ofelia is called upon to face danger while performing three difficult quests.

Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) is my favorite character, followed closely by Ofelia and the doctor (Álex Angulo). Mercedes is incredibly compassionate and nurturing and, at the same time, fiercely courageous. I won’t disclose anything else about Mercedes or the doctor, because I don’t want to reveal any more plot points, except to say that the doctor and Ofelia express their tremendous courage through quiet, firm acts of noncompliance.

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This is a beautiful, brutal, multilayered, and richly imaginative movie which manages to be both vividly realistic and surreal without losing focus. It’s a film that revolves around contradictions: light and darkness, beauty and misery, and triumph and freedom through death. I waited years to see this film because I was a bit afraid of the brutality, and I’ll admit to covering my eyes during several bloody scenes. But I really loved it and, overall, I didn’t find it as disturbing as I’d expected. It’s earned a place as one of my favorite films of all time.

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