To find beauty in the grotesque, to find love in the monstrous, to find empathy within tragedy – these are the trademarks of Mexican filmmaker, author, and artist Guillermo del Toro. Perhaps best known for helming the Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water and Academy Award-winning film Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has focused his decades-long career on infusing poetic beauty within the darkest corners of fantasy and horror. Human characters commit monstrous acts, while monsters demonstrate an unexpected level of empathy. The inversion of classic tropes is what del Toro does best, and is on its fullest, most emotional, most tragic display in Pan’s Labyrinth.
The story is deceptively simple: set during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, eleven-year-old Ophelia finds solace from real-world horrors when she comes across a mysterious stone labyrinth. This labyrinth is home to an even more mysterious faun, who tells her that she’s the reincarnation of the long-lost princess of the Underworld. To return to her true home, she must complete three dangerous tasks by the upcoming full moon or be doomed to remain on earth as a mortal. Complicating this fantasy is Ophelia’s heavily pregnant mother, the ruthless Captain Vidal, and the ongoing guerilla warfare happening in the woods just beyond the outpost where she and her mother have come to live. Del Toro supplements his dark and dreary setting with blue-tinged lighting and practical effects, enhancing the dreaminess of the visuals while a haunting lullaby-like soundtrack plays in the background. Pan’s Labyrinth is just as much a coming-of-age story for Ophelia as it is a commentary on the horrors of what humanity is capable of, as it shows the true antagonists of this film are the humans, not the monsters.
What makes this film truly compelling and tragic is the masterful way in which doubt is woven throughout the story. We find ourselves wishing right alongside Ophelia that her adventures and the prophecy are real, because believing otherwise is just too devastating. Del Toro’s love for the fantasy genre shines here, having constructed the story from scratch and even turned down a generous offer from Hollywood producers to double the budget if it was made in English. He believed that restructuring the film in English would undercut the setting and relevancy to Spain’s history and so filming it in Spanish was the only way to go. It is impressive that del Toro stuck to his beliefs and refused to compromise the story. The film went on to win three Oscars and three BAFTAs, along with a slew of other wins and nominations, which shows that not all films need to be made for a general audience and that even the most unique, most niche of stories can capture the essence of monstrous beauty and tragic love.