It is 1944. Ofelia is uprooted and sent with her mother to a Fascist military outpost run by her stepfather, Vidal. Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with Ofelia’s brother, but the pregnancy is not going smoothly and Ofelia’s mother is sick en route. In order to cope with the loneliness, isolation and fear that characterise Ofelia’s new home, she absorbs herself in a rich fantasy world. In this world she is given three tasks. Being successful at these tasks will mean that Ofelia can be restored to her rightful place as a Princess in another world. Despite support from Vidal’s servant, Mercedes, and the rising strength of the resistance movement, Ofelia’s end is tragic.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, is a powerful piece of cinema that offers a range of experiences to the viewer. It provides stunningly realised visuals and a beautifully haunting score. It has an ideological, as well as emotional impetus. It merges fantasy and reality to such powerful effect. It offers a fascinating study of what happens to childhood when forced to confront the horrors created within the adult world. Above all, it is a challenging piece of cinema that contains a rich discourse that seeks to engage, shock, move and trouble audiences.
One of the first images the audience sees is Ofelia dying. This image predicts that the narrative will be a retelling of what led to this tragedy. The centrality of this character and the subjective nature of the viewer’s future narrative journey are then confirmed with a zoom into Ofelia’s eye. We are encouraged to enter her subjectivity and the story is refracted through the consciousness of the child. The narrative structure subverts the audience’s expectations of Todorov’s three-stage structure. The equilibrium stage is generally assumed to be chronologically first and evident within a film text. Ofelia’s equilibrium is revealed only when the viewer learns about her life with her mother and father (a tailor). The majority of the film is spent in a situation of dis-equilibrium with the Fascists (and even the fawn) as agents of disruption. The mill and its surrounding area are the arena of conflict. Of course, there are two realities in this film and Ofelia’s quests also exist within the disequilibrium. As indicated at the beginning of the film, Ofelia’s story in the real world ends with her death. Although the end of this narrative also sees the resistance succeed in their defeat of Vidal and a reappropriation of land by its rightful inhabitants, the death of a child is a brutal narrative conclusion. The subsequent fantasy resolution, in which Ofelia is reunited with her family and reinstated on the throne, does seek to offer some solace to the viewer, but in the real world of the story, if there is a new equilibrium, it is hard won and deeply shocking.
Del Toro’s film is a heady mix of fantasy and reality, with the ‘real’ parts of the film still touched by elements of the fictional. From 1936 to 1939, Spain experienced a Civil War. This was an incredibly complicated and turbulent period within Spanish history, which saw right-wing generals attempt to overthrow the newly democratically elected leftist government. These rebel Nationalists were headed by Francisco Franco and were supported by the Catholic Church and Spain’s landowning elite. With significant aid and armed support from both Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, the right was eventually successful and General Franco controlled Spain until his death in 1975. It was the stories of and from Spanish exiles, who came to Mexico after Franco’s takeover, and the impact that these individuals had on Mexican culture, that helped spark del Toro’s interest in the period. Del Toro’s film ends with the Fascists defeated and the rightful heirs to the Mill (and therefore, Spain) victorious. However, these small victories did nothing to stop Franco and the Fascist party.1
Del Toro has stated that: ‘Pan’s Labyrinth uses fantasy and the supernatural to confront the malevolence and violence of the real world (Spain under Franco)’, (www.panslabyrinth.com). Fantasy and fairy tale are filters through which del Toro can articulate the horrors experienced by both Ofelia and Spain. The striking visuals of the dark fairytale worlds of storytellers like the Brothers Grimm and the fact that these stories focus on moral questions, are elements that are clearly evident in Pan’s Labyrinth. Ofelia is obsessed with Fairy Stories. They are her escape before she even arrives at the Mill. The Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp’s character roles, derived from the study of Fairy Stories, can be productively applied to Pan’s Labyrinth: the Faun as the ‘donor’/’helper’, Ofelia as the ‘Princess’/’Heroine’, etc. Creatures in classic tales include goblins, elves, trolls, animals and talking animals. Pan’s Labyrinth has the Faun, the Toad, the Pale Man and the Mandrake baby. The classic fairytale quest has three tasks, as does Ofelia. There are three fairies and Ofelia must choose to unlock one of three doors in the Pale Man’s Lair.
Fairy tales provide a perfect context for the most challenging and powerful of messages. They contain moral ambiguity and thus challenge the viewer to reflect on their own moral choices. The Faun is a morally ambiguous character. He is enigmatic, the holder of secrets, cruel at times and then comforting. He helps Ofelia in her quests, but by doing this then propels her towards her death. Fairy stories are about ‘rites of passage’. Often a nearly pubescent girl is challenged to a series of quests in order to prepare her for her future. Ofelia fits this ‘type’ and experiences all of the hurdles and hardships that any fairy story character would in her quest for truth and adulthood. Fairy stories merge fantasy and reality in order to pitch the child up against the horrors of the adult world. By creating worlds in which fantasy and reality coexist, the monstrousness of adult action can take on a monster’s form and be battled by the child.
In terms of its genre credentials, Pan’s Labyrinth draws from two main generic sources. Del Toro clearly cites the horror genre as one of his influences:
“there is certainly a re-assurance to our wellbeing to be able to vicariously see the misfortune of someone else …. The other power of the genre is that there is no other that generates images that stay embedded in your mind so strongly.” (in Wood 2006: 29).
He was always interested in the fantasy and horror genres, and as a child his three favourite actors were Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. Pan’s Labyrinth’s horror credentials are clear. Ofelia encounters monsters: the fantasy versions and the Fascist Vidal, who is far more frightening. The site of horror in classic horror films is an isolated place in which humanity is devalued and threat abounds. The Mill is a place of summary judgement, torture and death. Early German Expressionist horror films, such as Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), presented light and dark in conflict and tension with each other. The real and fantasy worlds within Pan’s Labyrinth also present a collision between light and dark. The shadows and dark corners of the Mill provide a stark contrast to the light-saturated court of the fantasy ending. As with these early examples, Pan’s Labyrinth also presents a contrast between what is ideologically light and dark. Pan’s Labyrinth also includes both the internalised and the externalised forms of the monstrous found in Horror films. The fantasy monsters represent externalised forms of monstrosity, but can they ever be less threatening than the monstrous psychopathology of Vidal?
The fantasy elements of Pan’s Labyrinth have already been discussed in terms of narrative, but are, of course, crucial to the generic tone of the film, too. Fantasy films are designed to engage the viewer through striking visuals. The sumptuous horror of the Pale Man’s lair is one of the many striking elements. Within classic conventions, the arena of fantasy in a film is one where the rational has been rejected and the subconscious is made visually manifest. As Ofelia retreats more and more into the ‘safety’ of the fantasy world, the two worlds become more intertwined. Fantasy films use the supernatural, myth and legend to draw on for both characters and storylines. Pan’s Labyrinth is no different. Daedalus created the labyrinth at Knossos for King Minos of Crete. Its function was to hold the Minotaur (half-man, half-bull), which was eventually killed by the Athenian, Theseus. The only way that Theseus could then escape from the labyrinth was with the help of Ariadne, who gave him a ball of string to tie at the start of the labyrinth, unravel as he went in and thus secure a path out. The Faun aids Ofelia in her journey, as she seeks to escape her earthbound context and rejoin her fantasy family. Fauns exist within Roman mythology as spirits of the woodland. They have the body of a man, but the horns, tail, ears and legs of a goat. Del Toro’s faun is formed from trees, leaves and wood. He is half-man, half-goat, sharing the explicit connection to nature of the Roman original.
Representation of the family is a significant element within the messages and values of Pan’s Labyrinth. The family is restorative and restored in this film, but only within the fantasy narrative. When Ofelia enters the light-soaked fairy kingdom, she sees her family restored. They are not only alive again, but are royal and adored by their many subjects. Ofelia’s quest has ended and she has been reunited with her family, as well as reinstated to her birthright. The mise-en-scène and cinematography of this scene both point to its credentials as a resolution. In the real world, however, families are destroyed and lost. The family unit is utterly vulnerable and its sanctuary cannot be guaranteed. As a support for individuals when facing oppression, the family does not always overcome. It is significant, for example, that the rabbit poachers are father and son, and that the father is forced to watch the brutalising of the son by Vidal. Ofelia’s mother is no armour for her against Vidal and neither is Mercedes, who becomes Ofelia’s surrogate mother. In the case of Mercedes and her brother, however, the strength of the family does eventually save the day, but this difference is consistent with the way in which the film codes the resistance as having a real future.
In terms of the representation of the female gender in Pan’s Labyrinth, the three main female characters present very different discussions. Ofelia resists oppression. She is transgressive and fights for what she believes to be true. Ofelia does not have Mercedes’s capacity for violence, but then she is still a child. She is also far more vulnerable than Mercedes and is eventually crushed by Vidal. Carmen is represented as subject and subjugated. She is a passive character, who needs Vidal in order to define and financially support her. For Carmen, her emotional and financial position would be untenable without male support. She gives up her freedom and potentially that of her daughter in order to secure that support. Carmen’s function for Vidal (and within the story) is to produce a child and once she has done this, she is no longer needed (and dies). Mercedes, in contrast, resists. She is active in the resistance movement and smuggles supplies to them. Mercedes represents a female spirit that is far more indomitable than Carmen’s. She is courageous and can inflict great violence on her oppressors; the half-smile that she carves into Vidal’s face is brutal and grotesque.
Vidal is, of course, the main male character and true monster of the film. His masculinity is cold, brutal and demanding of acknowledgement. Vidal’s sense of himself as a potent male is so strong that he refuses even to believe that his baby will be anything other than male. For Vidal, his sense of himself as one in a long line of men is essential. He wants his legacy to live on through his son, but thankfully the viewer knows that this will not happen. Vidal is Fascism distilled; he is also the monster that lurks at the back of every child’s psyche. Unlike the men of the Resistance or Dr Ferreiro, Vidal has no sense of empathy or sympathy for other individuals. He is the juggernaut of Fascism personified.
As physical manifestations of primal fears, the creatures do not need to be gender identified. They are greed, brutality, death, disease and age. They represent humankind’s worst fears for themselves, but they also contribute to the ideological debate through their need to control and destroy. Both the Pale Man and the Faun can be read as representing a masculinity that is in conflict with femininity, rather in harmony with it and, thus, they share the threatening masculinity that is evident in Vidal. The Pale Man is relentless in his attempt to capture Ofelia. His violence is sudden and horrific when his environment is under threat. Vidal shares both of these characteristics. The Faun is controlling, ambiguous and even cruel.
In 2006, Del Toro described a labyrinth as: ‘A maze is a place where you get lost …. But a labyrinth is essentially a place of transit, an ethical, moral transit to an inevitable centre’ (cited by Kermode 2006, podcast). Pan’s Labyrinth presents the journey of a child and that of a country. Both journeys are painful and tragic, with problematic resolutions, but both journeys are also powerfully and beautifully evoked.
1. For further detail on Spanish cinema’s response to the Civil War and Franco, see John Hopewell’s Out of the Past: Spanish Cinema after Franco, London, BFI, 1986.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Spain, Mexico, USA. Production Company: Estudios Picasso. Writer, Director, Producer: Guillermo del Toro. Producers: Bertha Navarro, Alfonso Cuaron, Frida Torresblanco, Alvaro Augustin. Cinematographer: Guillermo Navarro. Production Designer: Eugenio Caballero. Original Music: Javier Navarrete. Editor: Bernat Vilaplana. Special Effects Supervisor: David Marti. Cast: Ivana Baquero (Ofelia), Sergi Lopez (Vidal), Maribel Verdú (Mercedes), Ariadna Gil (Carmen), Doug Jones (Faun/Pale Man).]
Mark Kermode, ‘Review: Pans Labyrinth’, Guardian, 2006.
Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958.
Tzvetan Todorov and A. Weinstein, ‘Structural analysis of Narrative Author(s)’, in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 3, pp. 70–6, Durham, Duke University Press, 1969.
Jason Wood, Talking Movies: Contemporary World Film Makers in Interview, London, Wallflower Press, 2006.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.