With the release of Pan’s Labyrinth, the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who exhibited his talents in such horror films as Cronos and Hellboy and the darkly political The Devil’s Backbone, here declares himself to be an artist capable of great filmmaking. Encompassing both politics and horror, Pan’s Labyrinth features superb performances and flawless narration as the film shifts between the worlds of reality and fantasy, whose parallelism and eventual intersection are predicated on credible and mutually illuminating plots. The result is a visually lavish and meticulously plotted adult fairy tale imbued with a profound ethical vision.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her recently widowed and pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) move in with the mother’s fiancé, a powerful, if reserved and insecure, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez), at a mill which serves as a military outpost deep in the woods of northern Spain during Franco’s fascist rule. Rebels against the regime lurk in the mountains preparing to sabotage government forces.
The petty and vicious Capitan never misses an opportunity to demonstrate his power — whether it is by the gruesome execution of those who have wandered onto his land or the grisly torture of those who may have information about the rebels. Blind and unwavering obedience is what he demands of all those under his purview; if at the outset he is formal and distant toward Ofelia and her mother, his imperious exercise of control increasingly threatens mother and daughter alike.
This is a film suffused with blood and violence — from scenes of torture and direct facial gunshot wounds to amputations and hemorrhaging pregnant women. Its depiction of the adult world, the “real world” as we might call it, is dark and sinister, a world of deception and despair, where the best, even those committed to resisting fascism, dare not hope to do more than disrupt or delay the plans of the wicked. But there are admirable adults, including Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), the housekeeper assigned to care for Ofelia while her mother is ill.
In the midst of this world, Ofelia devotes herself to her books of fairy tales, and the film contains the expected contrast between a magical, if escapist, fantasy world of princesses and the dreary real world of pain and accommodation. But the fantasy world is, in this case, not an avenue to the facile satisfaction of wishes; it, too, is replete with malice and deception. But it is not without hope or the prospect of liberation from the constraints imposed on children in an oppressive and confusing adult world.
Adjacent to the Capitan’s military outpost is an ancient stone labyrinth, into which Ofelia is drawn by the entreaties of a large and very communicative, if speechless, insect. The fantasy characters — including the buzzing, shape-shifting insect that looks like a cross between a mantis and a dragonfly, an ominous looking faun (Pan, played by Doug Jones), a giant toad, and a mandrake root that comes alive when fed just the right mix of milk and blood — are some of the most memorable ever to grace the screen. Following the insect into the labyrinth, Ofelia encounters Pan, who informs her that she is the reincarnation of an immortal princess, upon whom is now incumbent the performance of a series of tasks for the sake of her kingdom.
Del Toro has stressed the difference between a maze and a labyrinth; the former is a “place where you get lost,” while the latter is “essentially a place of transit: an ethical and moral transit to an inevitable center.” Thus, Ofelia’s tasks are not simply arbitrary trials from which she will emerge to proceed with her previous life. Instead, they are trials that will test her character and that underscore the fundamentally ethical character of human choice. With its deployment of the classical motif of the labyrinth and its faun claiming to be the “mountain, the woods, the earth,” Pan’s Labyrinth invokes various pagan themes, but, as is made clear by the end of the film, the film’s ethical vision, its forbidding of direct harm against the innocent, is more at home in a Christian rather than a pagan universe.
Ofelia accomplishes the first task, which involves climbing into a giant tree and confronting a nasty and very slimy toad. The task is not all that difficult for Ofelia to complete, even if it soils the beautiful new princess outfit she had just donned with such pride. But the second task will be, as the faun warns her, fraught with much greater risk. She will need to be guided by the fairies he has chosen to escort her and to resist the temptation to east or drink anything at a sumptuous feast. “You must eat absolutely nothing,” the faun loudly admonishes her. Making good progress in her quest, Ofelia is suddenly overcome by the desire for the delicious food spread out before her. Succumbing to the temptation brings to life a hitherto moribund corpse sitting at the dinner table. Still relishing the feast and unaware of the approaching monster, Ofelia is protected by the fairies, two of whom are decapitated by the monster.
When the faun learns of her failure, he castigates her, announcing that she will now be mortal and the fairy world will fade away. The faun later returns to offer her a second chance; since her failure to follow his instructions led to disaster in the previous task, Pan now exacts from her a promise of absolute obedience. Having made that promise, she soon finds herself confronting a choice between obeying the faun and obeying what she knows to be right. Complicating matters for Ofelia’s choice are the strange physical appearance of the faun and what del Toro has called his “ambiguous” or uncertain intentions.
Among the many fine performances in the film, the eleven-year old Ivana Baquero delivers the most impressive. She manages to display, often simultaneously, a set of opposed qualities: curiosity and docility, vulnerability and strength, crafty resolve and enduring innocence. She embodies, not a naive and simplistic innocence, but an innocence that manages to be preserved in the midst of the corruption and ugliness of the world, an innocence that has learned how to navigate courageously and wisely the traps laid for those who would pursue the good. Just as in classical myth, the labyrinth is symbolic of the human condition itself.
Many commentators on the film have rightly noted the significance of the theme of disobeying authority. In the political world, a parallel drama emerges in the growing non-conformity of citizens and workers to the arbitrary edicts of the Capitan. But it would be wrong to limit oneself to an observation of the essentially negative, and rather banal, sentiment of questioning authority. That message would hardly rank del Toro’s film as a profound, adult fairy tale.
Instead, the negative theme of resistance to authority is subordinate, in the film’s final compelling sequence, to an affirmative theme, that of sacrificial love. In a revealing interview with Sight and Sound, del Toro has credits the influence of William Peter Blatty, particularly his Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, whose film title is The Ninth Configuration, for its dramatically convincing portrayal of “redemption through sacrifice and the giving of your blood to save others.” As was true in Blatty’s work, so too in del Toro’s latest: some of the conventions of the horror genre open up the possibility of the recovery of symbols too often trivialized in modern life. That, and not some conventional encouragement to resist authority, is what helps make Pan’s Labyrinth a great fantasy film.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.