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Pan's Labyrinth

Released 2007. Director: Guillermo Del Toro

THE LAND OF FAIRY TALES IS JUST A HAIRLINE AWAY FROM the brutal reality of violence and death. All that separates the two is a young girl’s imagination. Pan’s Labyrinth is an astonishing, uncompromising and phantasmagorical cinematic journey; and a fairy tale way too dark and scary for children.

The story is set in 1944 Spain when Franco’s fascist regime is driving out resistance fighters hiding in the mountains. Ofelia, an 11-year-old girl from the city, is uprooted with her pregnant mother to live in the military outpost of her new stepfather on the edge of a forest. Her evil stepfather, an army captain, hunts down the rebels and crushes them like defenceless bugs. The captain is portrayed as a pitiless sadist without conscience. In one instance, he crushes an innocent man’s nose by bashing it repeatedly with the butt of his gun, then shoots him.

While Ofelia does not see the acts of cruelty around her, director Guillermo Del Toro is skilful in conjuring an atmosphere of dread and danger for the youngster. Ofelia’s escape is the dazzling gift in her mind’s eye. The world she enters is the underbelly of fairy tales, laced with menace and strange creatures, some benign, others nasty. Del Toro’s vision here is equally dark, sinister and unpredictable. There are smoke-coloured fairies, a giant toad, a towering faun and a child-eating monster with eyes on the palms of its hands.

The interaction between Ofelia’s two worlds is seamless. Reality and imagination interact with each other, opening, flowing and intersecting like extensions of each other. A magical universe of hope, reward and untold darkness. The faun, whose name is Pan and who has a head of a goat and a body of a contorted tree trunk, gives Ofelia three tasks to fulfil to prove that she is the lost spirit of a dead princess.

As Ofelia confronts horror, isolation and the death of her mother while gunfire explodes around her, Del Toro doesn’t take the easy way out. There’s no sudden appearance of a knight in shining armour or magical rescue just because an innocent girl is in danger. Ofelia has to find salvation within herself. The girl must find a weapon against growing oppression. Del Toro’s fable on fighting fascism is a work of spellbinding artistry. And he tells his fairy tale without a single drop of syrup.

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