By Jessica O’Byrne
Pan’s Labyrinth – 2006 – dir. Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a rich pastiche of mythological references that is both familiar and completely, breathtakingly unexpected. By combining ages old storytelling techniques with a fearless use of cinematic magic, del Toro manages to once again breathe a completely new spirit into the ancient battle between good and evil. The film is, essentially, two stories in one: first, the story of a post-Civil War Spain in which Franco’s regime is doing its best to root out the last of the opposition forces. Second, the story of Ofelia, a young girl with an incredibly vivid imagination who discovers that she is actually the spirit of the long-lost princess of the underworld. The two stories converge with Ofelia’s mother, who has married Captain Vidal and is very pregnant with his unborn child.
After being visited by a fairy late one sleepless night shortly after arriving at the home of the Captain, Ofelia leaves the compound and enters an ancient labyrinth that stands nearby where she finds the mysterious faun. He tells her of her true identity and then assigns her tasks to ensure the immortality of her soul that include stealing a key from a magic toad and taking a dagger from a terrible monster that hungers for children’s flesh. It is in the second task that Ofelia wavers, reminding viewers that the heroine remains but a child and prompting the faun to banish her to the world of men forever. It is a heartbreaking moment for a child that is so alone in the world, but a necessary one as it proves to become part of the ultimate test of her strength.
In contrast to the dark and wonderful fantasy world that occupies the underbelly of the film, the supposed real-life events based on the Falangist occupation become even more grotesque. The Captains distaste for Ofelia’s imagination gives the viewer an indication of the widespread horror present throughout Spain at the time without cramming an ideology into a space where it does not belong. The Captain himself is a blatant symbol of everything ugly about humans, everything Ofelia longs to escape: machismo, narcissism, and an arrogant sense of pride that ultimately costs him his life. Her mother too, is a symbol of what awaits her in this world: well meaning but weak, she ultimately succumbs to the ill-fated wishes of the Captain. To that end, the well-placed series of ultra violent scenes effectively drives home the message of the delicately told parable that might otherwise have gotten lost. Before these violent scenes become too much, the viewer is again permitted to escape with Ofelia into the equally bizarre yet somehow more comforting fairy world. This is del Toro’s method of operation: slamming with the left fist while making shadow puppets with the right.
While the film Pan’s Labyrinth is by no means a child’s story, utilizing the structure of a fairy tale allows for an incredibly complex and multilayered story to be told in the relatively limited medium of a feature film. Wisely keeping the structure simple—a young heroine, her helpers, and three tasks requiring increasing amounts of intelligence, wit, and strength—del Toro is able to invert the plot in unexpected places while still keeping the viewers’ attention. At a time when the most intelligent plot twist that filmmakers can present is the ultimate triumph of evil in such stories, the success of the young protagonist Ofelia comes as a refreshing reminder of exactly where a quest pattern should end up. Similarly, the apparent betrayal of the character of the faun—who Ofelia is warned early on not to trust—is both foreshadowed and offset by his earlier efforts to rescue Ofelia’s brother. Ofelia’s willingness to spill her own blood, perhaps the most ancient mythological test of worthiness, brings the story full circle and delivers her home to her true kingdom.