Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale is a rebuke to the taming of the Brothers Grimm. His story of a young girl, Ofelia, is set at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. She has just been brought to the camp of her new father, Nationalist fascist Captain Vidal, by her pregnant mother. The former is a sadistic, obsessive-compulsive, suicidal and the latter is simply desperate to have found a protector in the new Spain. Ofelia escapes to the nearby woods of Vidal’s headquarters, and a world of faeries, fauns and monsters who give her arduous, often terrifying tasks that offer her majesty in a fairy tale land.
Unlike del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, the films’s forerunner, the war makes a more pronounced, visceral appearance. Vidal is cartoonishly vicious, obsessed with the birth of his son and a new Spain, bent on torture and extermination not just of his enemies, but of those who would infect the future. It borders overkill, but with with half of the deaths in the war attributed to executions and murder of the defenseless, the depiction is apt. The fate of Vidal’s son is del Toro’s rebuttal.
The film is visually stunning (it won Oscars for art direction, cinematography and makeup) and movingly juxtaposes the brutality of the war with Ofelia’s hidden place. But del Toro doesn’t make Ofelia’s choice easy. Her fantasy world can be every bit as treacherous and horrifying as the war she seeks to escape. In particular, Pale Man, who guards the quarry of Ofelia’s third task, is one of film’s most frightening visions (and has a gait similar to that of Mama, the spook in del Toro’s last film).
And you can be Pale Man at home!