Pan's Labyrinth is a movie that takes some small part of your soul and taints it forever, yet somehow makes you grateful to it for doing so.
After my initial viewing of this movie, I wasn't sure if I wanted to ever see it again. I didn't really feel I could sit through all that a second time. Eventually I did watch it a second time and it burned no less that time around.
I'm going to stop here and tell you to go and watch the movie now if you haven't seen it, because I don't feel I can discuss this movie with any meaning without presenting spoilers and this isn't a movie I want to spoil for you. This isn't so much a review as a retrospective.
The movie begins showing the protagonist Ofelia, a girl of about 10 years, lying on the ground with blood on her face, apparently dying. It then skips back in time to the start of the story, but this certainly didn't bode well for her future and it leaves a constant weight over the film as you are left waiting for that scene to unfold.
The basic plot is that Ofelia's widowed mother got remarried to a psychotic army captain (Captain Vidal). The two of them moved to live with him at his post commanding a small camp in post civil war Spain. It is taken from the viewpoint of Ofelia and how she confronts all of this.
Vidal is one of the most brilliantly crafted characters in all of movie history, in fact he would serve very well in a study of psychosis. The man is utterly insane, but of course he knows he is sane, and no one else would dare question it. The extent of the character's madness is such that his mere presence on screen creates an air of unease, like at any moment he is about to snap and kill everyone.
The whole tone of the movie is dark and oppressive and it rarely relents for long. The (partial) contrast to this is the "fairy tale" side of the story. Because in the midst of all the death, doom, gloom and brutality is a world only Ofelia appears to be aware of and yet is apparently quite real. Even this side of the story is twisted and disturbing though, with fairies and fawns that look more like the stuff out of nightmares than children's stories.
In this other world Ofelia is in fact the reincarnated princess destined to resume her place in a fairy tale kingdom after she proves herself by passing several challenges set for her.
As the story unfolds the darkness of the world Ofelia lives in becomes ever more apparent and so too does the seeming reality of this alternate, fantasy world as it appears to influence factors in the "real" world.
Finally everything goes to hell and Ofelia is left running for her life with her baby brother, trying to escape into a labyrinth and into her world as a princess. But she must pass one last test and sacrifice the blood of an innocent - her baby brother - to be deemed worthy. She refuses and Captain Vidal catches up with her and we are returned to the opening scene of the movie, with her lying, dying on the ground.
A drop of her blood is spilled, the blood of an innocent, and we see her fairy tale kingdom and her being welcomed home as princess, and her slowly dying, and her being celebrated as the long lost, much loved daughter of the king, and her eyes closing as she finally succumbs to death.
The movie is very much open to interpretation. It can be seen as a story of a true fairy-tale princess finding herself and escaping a terrible world to return home to her beautiful kingdom. That would certainly be a nice way to look at it, but that isn't the impression I was left with and I couldn't help but find it far darker.
To me it was a story of young girl escaping the utter horror of her reality by inventing a fantasy and slowly coming to believe it to be real as her only way of coping. She had no hope of any happiness or freedom in life, so she could only seek out a better world in her imagination and as the real world become more terrible she fled further and further into her own world. Only having known so little good in her short life, even her imagination was a dark and terrifying place. Her fantasy kingdom was dark and empty.
In the end the only thing she had left was her own integrity, not with reality which she long since lost, but just with herself and despite knowing she would lose the only hope she had left and having known no real love or care in her life, she couldn't sacrifice her brother to save herself.
And as she lies dying she imagines herself being freed from the terrible world she was in and moving to a better place. As the one small beacon of light in a world of evil.