Although the adjective "surreal" has entered everyday language, the movement of surrealism in literature, and even more markedly in the visual arts with such painters as Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and René Magritte, seems now to be located in a particular place and time: Europe in the 1920s. The movement was one of liberation of society and of the imagination. Psychologically, its aim was to explore the marvelous, freed from such rational constraints as mere contradiction, for instance between fantasy and reality or between life and death. Pan's Labyrinth, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, has travelled in time. It is set in Spain, in 1944, and combines the political and psychological themes of surrealism. It is a protest against political repression, and a liberation into the fairy-tale fantasies of an eleven-year-old girl, Ofelia.
The film is a psychological exploration of life as it shifts back and forth between two parallel planes. One plane might be called the ordinary world. With her mother, who has recently married the cruel Captain Vidal, Ofelia has moved to the headquarters of a military outpost in the north of Spain, where Fascist government forces commanded by Vidal are trying to put down a resistance force of guerillas left over from the Civil War. The other plane is of Ofelia's fantasies, derived from fairy tales that she reads, in which she is a princess who has to prove her worth, and reach her dominion, by completing three seemingly impossible tasks. Making two planes explicit is an engaging process in art: one plane can afford meaning to the other.
Guillermo del Toro is wonderfully accomplished as a visual thinker, and many of the images of the film are striking and thought-provoking. The film is true piece of modern surrealism. Several friends, whose judgement I trust, were very moved by it. I was not so moved, but I admired its artistry. Combining my friends' and my own judgement, I think it gets four out of five stars. You can read a longer review by clicking here.