1940 1944 and Spain is emerging from a civil war. The remaining insurgents have fled into the hills and are growing increasingly desperate. From his garrison in the woods, Captain Vidal has the mission to hunt down and kill these rebels lest Spain slip back into civil war.
Into this mixture come his new wife Carmen, and her daughter Ofelia. Carmen is in the last stages of a pregnancy. Ofelia, a ten-year-old girl, is swept up in an imaginary world of fairies. From the introduction to the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, we infer that Ofelia is actually a fairy princess who elected to move into the human world as a child. Apparently, she forgot her connection to this world, but she is unquestionably obsessed with fairy stories.
Ofelia will need her fairy stories to comfort her because they arrive at a remote garrison deep in the mountains run by Captain Vidal, and it is a cold and brutal place. It becomes clear very quickly that Vidal is a heartless and sadistic man, who will not hesitate to kill with impunity. Rarely has there been a villain on the screen more worthy of the title. He commands the garrison not from respect, but from fear.
This would seem an odd environment for Ofelia to encounter a fairy, yet she does. The fairy leads her into a labyrinth near the garrison, where she meets a faun. He informs her that she is a fairy princess. However, if she is to be reunited with her fairy kingdom she must pass certain tests. While a brutal war wages around her, Ofelia explores this magical world.
The fairy tale undertone though is actually a something of a subplot to the violent skirmishes between people that are waged in the real world. Ofelia’s real world is violent and confusing. Her stepfather the captain is obsessive and inordinately cruel. He has no problem using torture to achieve his aims, or even to kill the innocent. Unfortunately, in this R rated movie this is depicted unflinchingly. This makes it one fairy story for adults only. In fact, the violence is so graphic and on so intimate a level that I found it hard to endure. I watched many portions of this movie by squinting; I simply did not want to see such violence in all its gory detail.
The fantasy portions of the film however delight and enchant sufficiently to please even the most snobbish fantasy fan. They are in a word: flawless. The acting throughout this Spanish made movie (you will have to endure English subtitles) is first class throughout. You will cheer as if you are watching the end of a Billy Jack movie when the intensely evil Captain Vidal finally meets his maker. In addition, you will be warmed over by the message of the story, and the nearly flawless way the story is directed.
However, it is not a movie for the squeamish like me. Had I had an inkling that it would be as violent as it was, I would have stayed away, despite its fine production values and first class ensemble. If you can stomach the violence in the movie, you will find that the movie is worth whatever price the box office requests.
I find it hard to rate this film. While its violence so disturbed me, I still found it had so much merit. At least if you read my review you will be able to weigh for yourself whether its disturbing violence merits the otherwise fine acting, directing and special effects that made this film so memorable.