Guillermo del Toro sets the tone of the film before we even get a glimpse of the opening scene. As a soothing lullaby is eclipsed by the desperate painting of our young protagonist, who is fiercely fighting for every breath until she ultimately succumbs to her wounds. And from then on, Del Toro does not shy away from exploring even bleaker subjects in one of his most creatively wicked films. Pan’s Labyrinth revitalizes the essence of the fairy tales of old, where fabled creatures aren’t motivated by the purest of intentions, where the villains are served true justice, and princes and princesses are crushed by the grueling world around them. Del Toro has crafted a unique piece of art that is entwined with powerful imagery, themes, and allegories that subtly portray the intricate link between the use and abuse of power and the people subjected to it. So, take a sit and relax because we are going to have a deeper look inside: Pan’s Labyrinth.
Set in 1944 Spain, the story revolves around a young girl named Ofelia, who is traveling to a mill with her sick and pregnant mother, Carmen, at the request of her new Stepfather, who happens to be a high ranking officer of the Spanish Fascist regime. Captain Vidal, despite being in the middle of a skirmish with some of the local guerilla fighters, wants his son to be born in his presence, as has been a tradition within his family for generations. Ofelia, on the other hand, is by her mother’s side aiding her and her unborn stepbrother in any way she can. The story takes a twist when in the middle of the night she is visited by a bug who is transmuted into a fairy, who urges her to get out of bed and follow it to an ancient labyrinth nearby, where she is greeted by a decrepit faun. The faun reveals that Ofelia is no ordinary girl, she, in fact, is a princess from a magical realm who lost her memory after leaving her kingdom centuries ago. He also tells her that in order to regain her kingdom, she needs to complete 3 tasks. The first task is going inside an ancient tree, and poison a giant toad that is slowly draining the tree of its life. Whilst this was happening, things in the real world have deteriorated quite quickly. Captain Vidal is growing more vicious by the day, and we learn that one of the handmaids, Mercedes, is aiding the rebel group by supplying them with Intel and supplies. Preoccupied with the deteriorating health of her mother, Ofelia is distracted from her fantastical quest; until the faun returns in the middle of the night and gives her a mandrake, to keep her mother healthy, and a piece of chalk to be used in her next task. The second task is far more terrifying than the first, and perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in the film. She has to retrieve an ancient blade within a short period of time, but this blade is hidden in a chamber that is guarded by a grotesque monster.. This beast has a banquet in front of him, filled with succulent meat and ripe fruit. Ofelia, simply has to resist the temptation to take anything from the table and the monster won’t be awakened from its slumber. She, however, is mesmerized by some of the scarlet grapes and eats them, which awakens the demon. Two of the fairies try to distract it and are promptly devoured, and thanks to their sacrifice she is able to escape just in time. Returning to the real world, the faun finds out about her failure and is enraged, and tells her that she is not ready to return to her kingdom, apparently bringing her magical crusade to an end. Meanwhile, events in the real world are worsening at an exponential rate. Her mother dies in childbirth, Vidal also finds evidence that Mercedes was a spy, captures her and before being able to torture her she slashes his mouth and is able to escape. Ofelia, broken by the death of her mother, is approached by the faun one more time, this time she has to take her baby stepbrother and bring him to the center of the labyrinth. Vidal catches her in the middle of the act and pursues her throughout the maze. Once Ofelia gets to the center, the faun tells her to use the ancient blade to get some blood from her stepbrother, horrified by the request, she refuses and the faun leaves her alone with Vidal, who fatally wounds her. Meanwhile, the rebels launched a surprise attack and were able to defeat the fascist army and they directly confront Vidal. Before he could finish his final request, he is murdered in cold blood. Mercedes finds Ofelia in the brink of death and consoles her with a lullaby as she leaves this world. Ofelia however, awakens in the middle of a throne room and is surprised to find that she had actually passed the third task, as she had sacrificed herself before harming an innocent life. And, just like in traditional fairy tales, Ofelia ruled the underworld kingdom with kindness and justice for centuries, bringing her nothing but love from her subjects and prosperity for her kingdom.
The Allure of the Past
This film is bursting with a plethora of themes, each more complex than the last. But I would like to focus on what perhaps is one of the most prominent, and that is: the allure of the past. The imagery of time is quite apparent throughout the film. The first introduction we have of Vidal it’s not of him, but of his broken watch; a memento he inherited from his father. And although on the surface, captain Vidal may seem like a typical villain, one who enjoys having power, has narcissistic tendencies and takes pleasure in the agony of others, there is a surprising complexity to his character. He is strangely overprotective of his watch, we see him clean and maintain it meticulously, and we also see him protect its history. There is a scene during the feast when one of the generals tells him that he has, in fact, met his father and he left a great impression in him. And when he says that there was a rumor that when he died on the battlefield, he smashed his watch on the ground so that his son knew how a brave man was supposed to face death, Vidal lies and quickly dismisses this claim as nothing more than gossip. But, why would he lie about this? Well, it’s because the watch has a potent sentimental value to Vidal, and he is unable to confront and display his deepest vulnerability to other men hardened by war. Not only this, but the watch represents an ideal. It’s a relic of the military prowess of his father and those before him. A symbol for his family’s bloodline. This is why he is obsessed with his son, it’s apparent he does not care about Carmen, she is but a conduit for the continuation of his dynasty. Yet, Vidal failed to live to the expectation of the greatness of his father. And he knows it. That is why he is fixated with his image as a military leader, Del Toro often uses shots of him grooming his uniform and himself before facing his soldiers, yet in his moments of solitude, he displays the disdain he has towards himself and is ashamed to know that unlike his father, who commanded the respect of his peers by his innate qualities, he does it by fear because he is weak and not worthy of reverence. This motif of the prominence of ancestral bloodlines is mirrored in Ofelia’s story arch. After all, she is a princess lost in the world of mortals. Yet, unlike Vidal, her authority is earned through rigorous trials to reveal her moral character. These trials, however, were not merely physical and mental stunts, they were lessons, lessons that taught her about the virtues of a noble and righteous monarch. The first lesson was learning the value of life. There is an obvious exposition between the ancient tree and Ofelia’s mother. The tree is shaped like an uterus, with an entry shaped like a viginal canal, inside filled with fluids and a giant magical toad that is literally debilitating the vitality of the tree. And just like the toad, her unborn stepbrother is consuming the life of their mother. Ofelia at the beginning of the film seems a little reluctant with the idea of her mother marrying someone else, and she became much more preoccupied when she met Vidal and was afraid her brother would be just like him. After she poisoned the toad, there was a golden key inside its belly, and this made her realize that although the baby may be corrupt because of who his father is, there is innate goodness in him that must be preserved. The second lesson was much more intricate. This is where she learns the weight of her actions. She is strictly told by the faun that she must not touch anything from the monster’s table and she ,at first, avoids the feast before retrieving the dagger. However, it is peculiar how the fairies were guiding her to open the wrong door; but she, almost as if remembering a snippet from her past life, decides to ignore them and open the door next to it. This sudden and almost instinctual decision evokes a hint of ego in her. And this is what drives her to once again ignore the fairies and eat some of the grapes from the table. But this time, her decision led to the death of two innocent creatures, failing to return to the real world in time and having to escape on her own terms. This idea could be explored further by analyzing some of the imagery and the symbolism of this scene. What struck me the most was how the painting on the walls resembled the artwork of a typical place of worship, and how these paintings are glorifying the grotesque and brutal acts that the monster is subjecting the children to endure. And the piles of shoes are kept as a trophy, hidden on a corner implying that the lavish banquet came at the price of the death of all those children. And this is the fundamental temptation by all those who are set to rule. And this temptation, to gorge on those who are below your iron fist, is a choice that every monarch has made throughout the history of our civilization. And the pale man is a perfect representation of an ancient monarch losing his humanity by the corruption of his rule. He is as hideous as his actions, and his eyes are no longer where they should be. He is no longer seeing through his head; he uses his hands to see, and his hands, being a metaphor for the unrestricted power he has as a king. And it is no coincidence that when he awakens his hands, are shaped like a crown, and this crown is part of him, embedded in his foundation, and the crown is subjected to the inherent corruption of its host. This is why the faun had to teach Ofelia this lesson, let her see what she could become, and let her suffer for surrendering to the temptation of consuming from the spoils of power. The third and final lesson was essentially a test to see if she had learned anything from the previous two, and as we all know, she renounced her ascension to power at the expense of her stepbrother’s sacrifice, and proven herself worthy of her kingdom. But as brief as the last task was, there is a much more potent message veiled in between the lines. First, it’s curious how the dagger she retrieved was intended to be used in her stepbrother’s sacrifice. The blade could be interpreted as the absolute authority a ruler has to deliver justice. After all, this dagger is meant for one thing, to kill. And there is a reason this dagger was in the possession of the pale man, and it must have been used during his reign of terror. And this concept has some parallels in the real world. Vidal, has no qualms to deliver justice as he sees fit. Even when he takes the life of two farmers, and learns that he has made a mistake, he has no remorse, in fact, it’s just simply a minor annoyance and he forgets about it rather quickly. And then we have mercedez, who throughout the movie we see her carry a kitchen knife, sheathed and close to her, yet, although she had many opportunities to use it, she never does, until it was absolutely necessary when she was in immediate peril. And this contrast between Mercedez and Vidal gives the viewer a glimmer of hope, that perhaps there is true justice in the world and that the rebels and mercedez were nothing like the regime Vidal was serving. Yet, near the end, when the rebels surrounded Vidal, and he is unarmed and at their mercy, Mercedez gives the go ahead, and he is executed right then there. Just like Vidal had done to the farmers. Making us wonder if perhaps, this was all for nothing, and no matter who is at the helms of power. The result will always be the same.
There were alot of symbols I wanted to cover, but since I went over most of them already, I just wanted to quickly touch on the meaning of the Rose in Ofelia’s tale. She said that the gift that the rose granted to those who dared to climb the poisoned mountain was immortality. And this flower blossomed every night, waiting to be plucked yet, withered every day as no one wanted to go near it. This parallels the end goal of Ofelia’s adventure, as she would be granted immortality if she completed her quest, or , as the faun said, she would become mortal like the rest of them. I think that the flower is a symbol for eudaimonia, or in other words, human flourishing, which is the end goal of virtue. And this is something only Ofelia was able to accomplish at the end of the film, like I said before, Mercedez and the rebels may have had good intentions and were fighting against the evils of the Fascist Regime in Spain, yet when presented with the choice of true justice, they failed and caved to their need for vengeance. And Ofelia’s Mother made a similar choice, she married an evil man, because she was too afraid to fend for herself. And just like in the story, they had forgotten about the promise of the rose, and their world was filled with pain and fear of death, and unlike Ofelia, all of them remained imprisoned in a realm of darkness.
Many believe that Pan’s Labyrinth depicts the fantasy of a child amidst the brutality of the real world. Where one is filled in color, and the other is nothing but grey. And that every system is destined to crumble under the corruption of men. But, perhaps tyranny is not the failure of the ruler, it is the failure of all, a failure in our character and virtues, and perhaps fantasy and reality are one of the same, and while the cynics call it a fairytale, an unattainable dream. I beg to differ, in truth the answer is always there… you just need to know where to look.