This dark post Spanish Civil War movie – part animation and part real action – is a gripping study of cruelty and imagination.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a melancholy child with a vivid imagination and a love of escapist fairy tales. She needs all the comfort she can get when her pregnant mother (Aradna Gil) brings her to live with her new husband, Captain Vidal, (Sergi López) the sadistic commander of a remote garrison in guerrilla country.
As real life gets brutal and her stepfather puts down the rebel insurgents with increasing cruelty, her fantasies come to life. The weirdly sinister Fauno (Doug Jones) gives her magic powers and tells her that she is the lost princess of a secret kingdom where there are no lies or pain. Do fairy tales come true? Will anyone live happily ever after? Don’t count on it.
Independent: “Del Toro has made a magnificent alchemy of fantasy, horror and history that is at once outlandish and utterly plausible”
Channel Four: “The transitions from reality to fantasy and back again are beguiling and the viewer always has the sense of watching something not just gripping but also of vital importance.”
In this dark, bleak, mixed media fairy tale for adults, Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro has made a companion piece for his previous Spanish Civil War film The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and the new movie is even more powerful than its twin.
As befitting the work of a former make-up artist, Del Toro is very strong on the visuals. There is nothing glamorous here though. The action takes place in a dark world of greys and browns, with gloomy blue lighting in a landscape of mud and skies heavy with rain. The only bright colour is red but that is always blood.
It is usually night but even when it is not; the settings are as dark and sinister as a candle-lit Spanish church. Del Toro based his design on, amongst other things, Goya’s gruesome series of paintings, Disasters of War and Arthur Rackham’s bizarre illustrations for Alice In Wonderland. The result is truly spectacular with each scene a painting in its own right.
The “fairy tale” creatures, superbly executed, are far removed from even Walt Disney’s worst nightmare. They inhabit a macabre underworld where their only real charm is that they are not part of the real life cruelty that surrounds Ofelia, the young heroine (the wonderfully poignant Ivana Baquero). This fairy kingdom is filled with giant cockroaches, wood lice and locusts and even a terrifying giant monster that eats humans. Cosy it ain’t but it offers its own strange consolation to anyone gifted, like young Ofelia, with some imagination and the need to escape. It is not a place for the faint-hearted.
Neither is the garrison ruled by the ruthless fascist Captain Vidal who reveals his own particular introverted sadism from the first time we see him fastidiously shaving with a cutthroat razor. Sergi López, with an unpleasant resemblance to Hitler but without the comic moustache, is all the more frightening because of the quiet under-playing of his role. López is truly impressive in the power that he radiates whilst keeping his voice down and his movements deliberate. He oozes the troubled sensitivity of a psychopath. This is a man, damaged in childhood, and made all the more dangerous by his lack of imagination. Chillingly, we recognise his type, daily on the news.
There is a very strong cast with powerful performances from Aradna Gil as the frail mother struggling with the agonies of a life-threatening pregnancy as well as a bad marriage and, outstandingly, from Maribel Verdú as the Captain’s heroic and long-suffering servant Mercedes whose loyalties really lie with the rebels. Verdú, in a performance that mirror images the repressed Captain, is all simmering emotion and anger and becomes the magnificent personification of suffering Spain when her misery is pushed to the extremes of violence.
Violence is always present, not just when Captain Vidal produces his instruments of torture. It is there in the creaking floorboards, in the shadows that infiltrate every shot and in the menacing musical score with its dark melancholy string tones. The tension is maintained masterfully from the very first scene so that, when something truly nasty happens, you are already feeling the pain.
For all its flights of imaginative fancy, this is a gloomy and relentlessly pessimistic study of cruelty, both political and personal, but it is not without a glimmer of hope. A frail hope in the power of imagination and a tearful hope in the human capacity to rise above suffering. Qualities needed as much as ever today in a world still full of violence and cruelty and where the weak and vulnerable are still too easily pushed aside. Go see it and weep.
Spanish language with English subtitles
Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Aradna Gil, Doug Jones
Guillermo Del Toro