Into the Labyrinth we go
An essay/review of Pan's Labyrinth by Maritza Galvan
“Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie that seems to have affected people as deeply as it affected me. To some, it takes root almost at a molecular level. I confess that I still cry (rather loudly) during the last three minutes of the film. And that I am still arrested by its beauty and destroyed and lifted by what it says about our world” -Guillermo del Toro
The genre of horror has been used as a way to express our deepest fears, while fantasy has allowed for reality to be reappropriated, interpreted, and explained. Throughout his films, Guillermo del Toro has successfully combined both horror, fantasy and heart in such a way that leaves his viewers completely enthralled with the stories he's created. Some of his most influential films are centered around the horrors of war. His blending of the genres horror and war period films are quite unique and have left an immense impact on fans like myself. One thing myself and many others have always admired is, even though he creates such monstrous characters, it’s always the human villains that scare the most. In 2001, he premiered The Devil’s Backbone, a ghost story that takes place in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War. His initial idea was to only do this film but as he learned more about the war he found that it was hard to articulate everything with this one story (Nunziata, del Toro, Cotta Vaz, 2017). This led to the creation of a companion piece. Pan’s Labyrinth, described by del Toro as “a fairy tale for troubled times” (Nunziata et al., 2017) continues the theme of innocence and war. The film takes place during the final part of the Spanish civil war, Francisco Franco’s fascist government has gained control of neutral Spain. Many people who’ve seen the film have had different interpretations, some feel that Ofelia made this whole story up in order to cope while others are firm believers that everything that happened was indeed real. But what I find most intriguing is the way that del Toro created a hauntingly beautiful dark fairy-tale in order to bring to light the terror that lies within war and fascism while playing with the idea of choice and obediance.
The beginning scene sets up the somber tone that is carried throughout the film. A little girl who is later introduced as Ofelia, the main character, is shown lying on the floor as blood drips back into her nose. A tale is then told of a princess who lived in an underground realm who escaped because of her fascination with the human world, but because of the illuminating sun, her memory was erased and eventually, death was upon her. As the tale comes to an end, the film shifts to the year 1944, introducing Ofelia and her sick pregnant mother Carmen as they travel to their new home, a mill where Carmen’s new husband General Vidal and his men made their post. During a stop, Ofelia finds a stone that perfectly fits into a statue. The moment she pops it back in place, a leaf like stick bug comes out of the statue’s mouth. Ofelia being no stranger to fairy tales, immediately believes this creature is a fairy. But what is unknown to her is that this initiated the journey she's about to embark on. Later that night, the stick bug reveals themselves as a fairy, leading her back to the ancient labyrinth she led her to upon her arrival earlier in the day. What she finds there is a tall magnificent creature whose body resembles a tree like figure and introduces himself as the faun. The faun makes the claim that she is princess Moanna from the underground realm. But before returning to her beautiful kingdom she must complete three tasks in order to prove herself. The fuan hands her a book which will direct her on her new adventure in which she is faced with an array of choices that would ultimately lead her to her fate at the end.
Throughout the film, Ofelia finds herself caught between the worlds of reality and fantasy. Del Toro blends both worlds in such a way that allows the audience to follow Ofelia’s journey effortlessly, thus the contrast between both worlds is differentiated through the use of colors and imagery. The reality tends to be darker, filled with hues of blue, while the fantasy has warmer colors. The blue hues encapsulate the cataclysmic emotion portrayed in some of the most violent and devastating scenes that take place within the human world and to no surprise the character who causes such violence is General Vidal. What I find to be most intriguing is the fact that even though we are shown some of the most terrifying monsters in the fantasy world, Vidal made my skin crawl the most. Now, I must admit that on the top of the list of some of my greatest fears is in fact fascism. We’ve learned the horrors that lie within a fascist regime through the Holocaust as it is an example of how a dictator abused his power in order to further oppress a group of people. What makes fascism thrive is its root in nationalism, it paves way for injustices by inciting fear about the “other”. With that being said we cannot deny that the current president of the U.S is known to be a proto-fascist, the idea of the possibility of him becoming a full fledged fascist if he won the second term could have been with no doubt in my mind, completely possible. The reason I bring this up is because I believe del Toro has created Vidal with the intention to highlight that evil doesn’t only lie within a made up creature. Evil exists within people, those who make choices to inflict pain and suffering among others, all for the name of power and control. By the end of the film, he has transformed into the true villain of the film, and to make this more clear to the audience, the cut on his face makes him appear more sinister than before, the outside now matches the inside. I must add though, that this is not to take away from the Pale Man, because he is truly frightening but, I will get to that later. In one of the most violent scenes, a father and son were caught by Vidal’s men and mistaken for rebels, no matter how many times they shared their story of hunting rabbits for their family they continued to be questioned. Vidal’s short fuse exploded, which led to him brutally beating the son with his pistol until his face was completely flat. Following this, Vidal shot the father right before making the discovery of a rabbit in their bags. Showing no remorse, by what just happened he instead blamed his men for bothering him. The scene shows the cruelty that lies within Vidal. Del Toro has stated that this scene came from an oral account from a post-war occurance in a grocery store where a fascist came in and killed a citizen by smashing his face in because he didn’t uncover himself. Even though Vidal is a character created from del Toro’s imagination, there is a direct influence from the real life events that have occurred during the war. Overall, del Toro's depiction of a fascist general encompases the cruelty of a real life fascist general or soldier.
Not only has del Toro successfully created such atrocious humans, his creatures come straight from our nightmares. Out of the three creatures in the film, The Pale Man has frightened viewers the most. Aside from the most obvious reasons such as his pale saggy skin, no eyes on his face, and hunger for children, what he represents makes him immeasurably more terrifying. According to one of del Toro’s tweets The Pale Man “represents all institutional evil feeding on the helpless. It’s not accidental that he is a) Pale b) a Man. He’s thriving now”. For some context, he tweeted this back in 2017, and till this day has expressed his views on the institutions that thrive in the U.S. I found it to be very interesting that while Ofelia embarks on her second task, we are also shown the dinner that General Vidal hosts in which he discusses his decision to decrease the rations. The priest responds with something along the lines of “they’ll make it work” while he stuffs his face with food. The mirroring between this scene and that of the Pale Man and the buffet of food that surrounds his table was a great depiction of these institutions such as the church who stood complacent during the war. It’s important to also mention the pile of shoes of the kids he’s eaten that are shown in the dining area which according to del Toro, represents the concentration camps during the Holocaust. When Ofelia was making her way back, she couldn’t stop the temptation of eating a piece of grape which resulted in the Pale Man awakening from his slumber. This scene in particular, from the detail of the eyes being put into his hands in order for him to see, to the way he violently eats two of the fairies that accompanied Ofelia, del Toro did a remarkable job at creating a monster that has lingered in the minds of many. One that represents the horrors that the institution has inflicted upon innocent people.
As mentioned previously, along with the overall theme of war and innocence, the filmfocuses on the idea of choices and obedience/disobedience, with each choice unlocking a chain of events. Ofelia is faced with numerous choices, when finding out that Mercedes is helping the rebels who’ve challenged the fascist regime, she chooses not to tell anyone. She also made the choice to disobey the fauns orders to not eat from the Pale Man’s table. And her final and most important choice which was refusing to sacrifice her little brother in order to open the portal for her to go home. Although she didn’t have a say in what happened to her throughout the film, she had the autonomy to make her own decisions based on her conscience. She was able to have some control in that sense. Mercedes had her own choices to make as well, including the choice to take Ofelia under her wing after her mother’s death, and the choice to help the rebels get into the supply room. In Vidal’s mind this decision was proof of disobedience towards him. Vidal is another character that is faced with many choices, for instance the choice to cruelly kill a father and son, the choice to have his wife travel to him even though the doctor recommended against it, which led to her death, and the choice of killing Ofelia in the end. This theme of choices and disobedience stick with the popular trope that is in a lot of fantasy stories.
Despite the fact that I’ve seen this film so many times, the ending still leaves me sobbing uncontrollably. This is where the heart that I briefly mentioned truly shines through in the film. After given the instructions to grab her brother and meet the faun at the labyrinth, Ofelia finds herself in a predicament to choose between her brother and her dream to return to her kingdom. With a dagger in one hand, the faun asks Ofelia to hand her brother over insisting that he needs only a drop of blood from her brother in order to open the portal but Ofelia refuses. Within seconds, Vidal catches up to her and ends up shooting her. But once he makes his way out of the labyrinth he is met by Mercedes and a number of rebels who take the child away and kill him. With this comes the ending of the film, in which Mercedes finds Ofelia. As she takes her last few breaths of life, Mercedes hums a lullaby she sang to her in the beginning of the film. This lullaby in particular emcompasses the emotions that viewers feel as they watch the light of life fading away from this innocent child who was caught in the middle of a war. The melancholic melody goes so beautifully with this tragic tale. Del Toro stated that when he premiered this film at the Cannes festival, it received a standing ovation that lasted 24 minutes long. The fact that it elicited this type of response, proves how this film emotionally impacted the audience. The film has brought to light the innocence of a child and the horrors that could lie within a person.
Pan's Labyrinth is a film that has captivated many, from the magnificent faun, the terrorizing Pale Man, the cruel Vidal, and Ofelia’s wholeheartedness. It’s emotional impact has left fans with a reminder of the ways that powerful institutions could plague the lives of the innocent. Ofelia’s character is extremely loveable and highlights the innocence of a child. Her love for her brother outweighed her desire to return to the kingdom, but unknowingly her sacrifice was the final test in order for her to return home. As Mercedes cries for her death, Ofelia’s soul enters the underground realm where her father and mother await her. It’s a bittersweet moment, I appreciate the choice that it gives viewers on whether it was all real or a coping mechanism for Ofelia. With these tragic events, it's important to remember the influence it had on Vidal’s fate. Although the fascist regime didn’t end with the death of Vidal and his men, it represented the strength that emerges from the unity of the oppressed.
Nunziata, Nick, et al., Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth: Inside the Creation of a Modern Fairy Tale. Harper Design, 2017.