Pan’s Labyrinth combines two layers of reality: a hard and unrelenting place in the recent past and a bizarre and weird fantasy world. The movie takes place in the early Franquist period, where the pro-Franco forces fight the anarchists who wanted to see the oppressive regime ousted. The main character is a girl, whose stepfather is the captain of the local pro-Franco forces. Hard and cruel, he makes life miserable for her (and deadly for many other). Even her mother doesn’t help at all and instead demands her to give into the insanity. Instead the girl learns of another world, her true origin, where she’s a princess. But to access that world Ofelia has to pass three tests.
According to statements of the director, the fantasy is the real thing, not merely a psychological construct. That said, even with this positive spin the movie remains pretty grim. After all, not everyone gets the escape route. And while the final image of the fantasy world shows a brighter place, the fantasy layer shown during the course of the movie manages to be pretty disturbing. This is a clever misdirection, that forces you to wonder whether the fantasy is actually better than the real world.
The fantasy layer is one of the high-points of the movie, with a style and symbolism more reminiscent of horror than fantasy movies. It’s claustrophobic and violent, using an insectoid inspired creature-design that is more repulsive than appealing. Instead of defusing the already grim setting of the real world, it compounds it. Apart from the (still pretty bittersweet) ending, this isn’t a very uplifting fantasy. But a fascinating one.