This movie is really, really good. And I could probably recommend it to only half the adults I know. The level of graphic violence and general intensity is heightened by the presence of children who may at any moment witness (or have inflicted upon them) various physical horrors.
The film is heavy on plot, but there is still plenty of room to explore vivid imaginary (or not?) landscapes and characters. The story is set in a Spanish countryside in 1944 where fascist troops are fighting against rebels. A young girl and her pregnant mother seek refuge in a country estate that has become a stronghold for a villainous fascist general and his minions.
Spiritual, fantastical realities begin to interpret and inform the events of the real world, and it becomes hard to decide which of these two worlds are the most terrifying to observe. In turn, each world offers a kind of escape from the other for Ofelia, and yet “escape” is barely the word. Ofelia finds little rest as she navigates the horrors and limitations of both the “real” and the fantastic realms of this story.
The violence draws the intended adult audience into the story with a general tension about what might happen to these young characters. There is rarely any question in the viewer’s mind about where characters stand (except the enigmatic supernatural creatures that we can’t bring ourselves to view as merely “good” or “safe”). The vulnerability of the girl, the mother, and the newborn baby bring a bucket-load of tension to this story. We see in the opening scene that the main character, the young Ofelia, might die. This is a film that might do terrible things to children–and even babies.
There are moments of shocking beauty in this film. But even the events that give us glimmers of hope eventually turn rancid. A magical milk-root that we think might help heal the mother goes disgustingly sour. A certain nefarious villain gets a nasty facial wound: not exactly the kind of poetic justice that we can comfortably affirm. In fact, that deforming wound actually makes him seem all the more monstrous and unstoppable.
But don’t misunderstand me. To a handful of people, I would highly recommend this film. It is an imaginative, fantastical adult film that opens doors you won’t expect, and takes you places you will hardly believe once you are there. Pan’s Labrynth offers a richly dark journey that celebrates the raw, shocking, fearful, fairy-tale-filled imagination that we grownups may have buried or otherwise turned away from a long, long time ago.