Mexican-born director Guillermo Del Toro seamlessly blends two supposedly juxtaposed film genres in this 2006 Spanish masterpiece: the fairy-tale and the brutal war narrative. Set in Spain in 1944, after the end of the Spanish Civil War, young Ofelia is taken with her pregnant mother to their new home of her new Fascist stepfather, Captain Vidal. Deep in the sloping forests of the Spanish countryside, home to many a guerrilla troop, Ofelia discovers a labyrinth which reveals to her a whole fantasy world, like the ones she reads in her story books.
Only this time, the fairy-tale is not as delightful and pleasant as you would expect. Del Toro presents a fairy-tale as it would occur in the real world. The monsters are hideous, the tasks she has to perform are terrifying, and even the faun and the fairies who are on her side are daunting to behold. The faun tells Ofelia that she is the long-lost princess of the Underworld, and in order to prove herself and warrant her return she must perform three tasks. At first the tasks seem to be complete figments of Ofelia’s lonely imagination, but the real and the fantasy start to become more and more entwined, until it is no longer possible to know what, if anything, is made up. The magic book that is meant to guide Ofelia in her tasks begins to make sinister premonitions about the fate of Ofelia’s mother in childbirth, and towards the stunning finale Ofelia discovers that her very real brother is instrumental in her completing her final, supposedly ‘imaginary’, task. The blurring of these boundaries between real and imaginary only heightens the sobering revelation that fascism is a terrible fairy-tale brought to life.
While Ofelia is busy in her fantasy world, the sub-plot about the tensions between the commander, Vidal, and the resistors often takes centre stage. Housekeeper and ally of Ofelia, Mercedes is working as a double agent to bring supplies, as well as aid to her brother and his men deep in the forest. Some of the more disturbing scenes come when Vidal’s true nature is fully revealed; for example, when he exerts his power over a captured guerrilla and over Mercedes when her betrayal is discovered. The unrelenting torture and pain to which he subjects the guerrilla in particular highlights the brutality and evil of the fascist rule. The beautiful way in which Del Toro blends this with Ofelia’s fantasy world invites us to consider them side by side, and to see the unlikely similarities between the monsters of fascism and the monsters of fairy-tales.
The finale of the film sees Ofelia steal her baby brother and bring him to the labyrinth, as instructed by the faun. However, when he reveals that she is required to spill the blood of an innocent in order to reach the Underworld, she boldly refuses. Perhaps this is an inclination that, despite how some of the soldiers under the command of Vidal act, one should not always display a strict obedience of extreme rules. When Vidal follows her into the labyrinth to retrieve his son, he sees Ofelia, talking to no one. In his crazed, half-drunk state, he sees her as the reason his life is crumbling around him, and shoots her. Moments before her eyes close forever, Ofelia sees herself being welcomed into the Underworld palace, where her father and mother await her joyfully. She passes the final test: sacrificing herself to save her innocent brother. A faint smile crosses her lips, and her eyes close.
Mercedes saves the innocent baby and kills Vidal, but it is too late for Ofelia. This leaves the question that will never be answered: was the fantasy world real? Did Ofelia’s soul truly take its rightful place as a princess? Or was it all just the wild imagination of a lonely and desolate child, trying desperately to escape the twisted fairy-tale happening around her? It is not only the stunning imagery and heart-wrenchingly emotional performances that make this film art; it is the ambiguity of the truth as magic is balanced with the gritty pain of reality.
– Claudia George
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