It's well directed, of course, by Guillermo Del Toro. The fantasy sequences are imaginative and superbly realised. The largely Spanish cast is superb. But the script, the characters and the themes are what give this film its greatness. It's 1944, and General Franco is consolidating his iron grip on Spain. For those who oppose him there is little hope and much cruelty. Life is hard. And for little Ofelia things seem particularly bleak. Her pregnant mother, Carmen, has had a hard life and has been forced, through desperation, to marry the thoroughly unpleasant Captain Vidal- sadistic, chauvinistic, uncaring and serving as a narrative symbol of Franco's Spain with all its violence, stupidity, inhumanity and lack of any imagination whatsoever.
So it's no surprise that Ofelia seeks escape in fantasy and fairy tales, which offer her a much better world than the one she inhabits. Immediately we have the value of escapism, but we also have the rich possibility of metaphor which, gloriously, is left ambiguous enough throughout the film to be interesting. And most central of all is the question, also gloriously ambiguous, of whether the fantasy sequences are real or just in poor Ofelia's head; does she end up dead, murdered by her cruel stepfather, or a princess with her real parents? Either way, the film cleverly leavens some very dark scenes and themes- involving torture and worse- in the real world with some truly wonderful fairytale concepts.
Patriarchy is a theme, and explicitly linked with fascism and inhumanity. Vidal cares only for his unborn son- and it must be a son- and not for the comfort of his wife, whose death leaves him unmoved. Love as an emotion seems alien to him (his regard for his dead father is not love but worship of masculine tropes) and he regards women with contempt. All that matters is his family name being passed on so it is a just punishment when, just before he is shot, Mercedes tells him that his son "won't even know your name."
There is hope, though, in the integrity of people like Mercedes, a strong woman who defies the tyranny of patriarch, and Doctor Ferreiro, who died a gentleman's death after an act of brave mercy. And we are allowed a reminder that, as these events are taking place, the beaches of Normandy are being stormed. Fascism is decadent, empty, and ultimately weak. Decency will outlive it.
The title of the film in English is odd, though- there's no suggestion that the faun (another patriarch demanding obedience, just to add another layer) is supposed to be the Greek god pan. But the labyrinth... I wonder if this is a reference to Borges? There are so many layers to this beautiful film, and it is one that everyone should see. If you don't usually watch subtitled foreign films then please make an exception for this one.