Review by Jane Freebury
If the point of fairy tales is to frighten small children into doing as they’re told or the bogeyman will get them, then this richly embroidered fantasy from Spain turns the lesson on its head. As its MA rating suggests, it contains harsh violence, and is a fairy tale strictly for adults.
We are never too old for fairy tales. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is completely attuned to this and has created a drama set in vicious fighting during the Spanish civil war in 1945 which develops in parallel with a young girl’s retreat into a fantastical world inhabited by monsters, fairies and an ogre that eats little children. The result is an astonishing film that is an entry in the best foreign film award at this year’s Oscars.
Set in the adult drama that is the framing story that prompts Ofelia’s surreal imaginings, the movie begins with the story of a princess of the underworld, who left in search of the sunlight in the world above. Although lost, she is still sought and it seems that this brave 11-year-old could embody her spirit.
She has travelled with her pregnant mother to a remote corner of Spain where her stepfather is leading a military campaign of fascist oppression against a guerrilla stronghold. Violence surrounds her in the above world.
Near her new home there’s a stone labyrinth she explores, an adventure that brings her in touch with a seven-foot tall cloven-hoofed faun who gives her a book with a set of tasks to follow.
There’s a key to find, and chalk to draw a door in the floor and there are horrors when she enters a chamber in which an eyeless figure – think of one of Goya’s most horrifying images – sits at a table laden with luscious food. In the corner is a telling pile of shoes.
It’s a grave and touching performance from Ivana Baquero who observes the world of adults and besides the compassionate housekeeper (Maribel Verdu from Y Tu Mama Tambien) finds it particularly unlovely. She is on the cusp of womanhood, rejects her evil pistol-toting stepfather, explores slimy underground passages and is in conversation with someone who seems to be the god Pan. You can do the symbolic interpretation from here, and be prepared for a compelling tale by a very skilful storyteller.