Perhaps one of the best films of all time.
Writer & Director: Guillermo del Toro
Actors: Maribel Verdú, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Ariadna Gil
This film is one of those incredible European fantasies which is so much more than a mere fantasy. Set in Spain at the end of World War II, it is a multi-layered political and moral parable which takes place both in the faerie-land realm of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and the parallel world of Franco’s brutal fascism.
Eleven year old Ofelia’s mother has married the captain of a military outpost in the Spanish mountains. Capitan Vidál (Sergi López) is charged with “cleaning up” the partisans left over from the Spanish Civil War. As we are shown the grim face of this real-life history, we follow Ofelia into an underground labyrinth where she meets a mythical faun, who informs her that she is a princess, the daughter of the king of the Underworld. She is given three tasks to prove that she is worthy.
Ofelia’s first task is to recover a key which has been swallowed by a giant toad who lives in the rotted trunk of a huge fig tree. The symbolism here goes much deeper than a simple fairytale princess-to-be must retrieve the key to the kingdom. The toad, a sign for the bloated and corrupt nature of the fascist beast, is destroying the tree of life.
For the second task, Ofelia must use the key to retrieve a ceremonial knife. Passing a sumptious feast presided over by a terrible sleeping monster who eats children (and faeries), she is warned to not touch a bite, no matter how tempting. The final feat I won’t give away, but the metaphors are deep and reveal levels of truth about the real world in which we live.
Meanwhile, Mercedes (Meribel Verdú), a young woman who works in the garrison, is also put to the test. Her brother Pedro is a member of the Partisans, and with the help of the outpost’s doctor, she has been smuggling supplies and mail to the guerillas, hiding in the nearby hills. Mercedes is guilt-ridden because she believes she should be fighting with the Partisans, instead of working for the fascists.
Of course, like the Partisans who were either killed or forced into exile, this film does not have a happy finale. In the end, both Mercedes and Ofelia must face a choice. And that choice defines the major theme of this film. What is our moral imperative in the face of terrible evil, when innocent lives are being destroyed?
Technically, this film is masterful. The cinematography and 3D animation are superbly done. The mood is dark and menacingly crafted, and the monsters quite fantastic. The acting also is great. López, as Vidál, is convincingly sinister, and Mercedes is played very touchingly by Verdú. The script is well written and the editing tight.
The story by itself would make this a fine movie, but everything about it seems just about perfect. This is a movie you could see several times, and find new insights and appreciation in each viewing.
All ten of my thumbs up on this one.