This is one of those films that I had been wanting to see for ages, convinced that it would be great after so many positive reviews and friend's recommendations. So why did it leave me so flat? Actually flat isn't the right word, I felt a bit dirty, like I'd just witnessed something really horrible. Which of course I had.
Guillermo del Torro's film is set in 1944, after Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War but during the period of repression against the lingering left wing forces, now acting as guerrilla units. A young girl, Ofelia, travels with her pregnant mother at the beginning of the film to join her new stepfather Captain Vidal, who is stationed at a mill in north-west Spain to battle said guerrillas. Ofelia has a passion for fairy tales and whilst there she discovers an ancient maze. Here she meets a faun who believes her to be a princess of the underworld and he gives her three tasks to complete in order to return there and be reunited with her father.
So that's the set-up. I had been led to believe that this was going to be an allegory of life under Franco's regime, of one girl taking refuge in fantasy to protect herself. But I was unseated almost immediately by the first scene which shows us the young girl lying on the ground bleeding. If you want a **SPOILER ALERT** then here it is but it's not really me spoiling anything, you know immediately that this isn't going to end well, you've just seen the ending. What carries us there is the tyranny of Captain Vidal who is irredeemably evil. A man who shows no concern for the health of his pregnant wife other than to tell the doctor that if he is forced to make a choice in saving one or the other he is to save his unborn son. A man from the shoot-first-ask-questions-later school of thought except that you can substitute the word shoot with smash-repeatedly-in-the-face-with-the-butt-of-your-gun-and-then-shoot. The violence in this film is graphic to say the least. Del Torro takes particular glee in gunshot wounds, sprays of red from the backs of heads as mounted soldiers fall from their horses. The torture scenes attempt to recreate the spine chilling tension of Marathon Man's infamous 'Is it safe?' but descend into just plain torture (and the fact that I can use those two words together in a sentence is worrying enough). You hope for something to lift you out of all this and I guess that comes with the ambiguous ending. But the very fact that it's ambiguous is problematic. If the fanatsy world that we see is the creation of Ofelia then the ending is depressing beyond belief. If however it is real, as del Torro himself has hinted in a subsequent interview, then it's not an allegory but a fantasy and what is the point of that? It just left me feeling that I'd watched an innocent young girl be terrorised and murdered. There's some solace to be gained I guess from knowing that that allows her to join her family again in the underworld but I live in the real world, and if you're telling me that people such as Captain Vidal are out there, that there is such a thing as an evil person then that's a very difficult message to take and a strange one to put out there. Somebody help me unerstand what I missed.