Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno, 2006)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The cinephile world has gone wild over Pan’s Labyrinth. The film has earned a phenomenal 99% positive rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s hard to know what more there is to say about it—but I’ll try. While Pan’s Labyrinth is a must-see among cinephiles and has strong support from the fanboy demographic who flocked to see two of Guillermo del Toro’s previous films, Blade 2 and Hellboy, the moviegoing populace at large is going to ignore it in droves because it’s in Spanish and too violent for family viewing. That’s a shame, because this is as fine a bit of storytelling as the best Steven Spielberg narratives. Despite its realistic, graphic violence and buckets of blood, the movie rides a wave of enchantment by weaving its overt fairytale storyline subtly, but powerfully, into its real-world storyline to create a sublime sort of hybrid.

As a sort of follow-up to del Toro’s 2001 feature The Devil’s Backbone, a bleak and chilling ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in a rural area of Spain shortly after Franco’s fascist regime has taken power. Rebels still hope to unseat Franco, so military outposts continue their gruesome job of exterminating the opposition. To one such outpost travel 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who has married the outpost’s leader, Captain Vidal (Sergi López).

As del Toro sets the scene at the beginning of the film, a voiceover narration tells of the princess of the underworld who, out of curiosity and boredom, went up to the physical world and lost all memory of her identity in the rays of the sun. Her father searched for her, and never gave up hope that she would return to his kingdom one day and reclaim her identity and place. Already, del Toro has very simply put us into “tell me a story” mode, piquing our interest and riveting our attention to the tale he intends to unfold. Further, he concentrates our attention on Ofelia, who is shown in close-up reading this fairytale in a book as she rides in the car with her mother. Carmen becomes nauseated, and her driver must stop the car for her. This is an arduous trip, and Carmen is having a difficult pregnancy. She is, however, obeying her new husband, who believes a baby boy should be born near his father. In the captain’s mind, there is no chance the baby will be a girl.

Their late arrival to the outpost annoys the Captain. His greeting to his wife is perfunctory and includes an order for her to sit in a wheelchair for transportation to her new quarters. Ofelia does not like him, but she is far beneath his notice. Looking after her will be Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), the chief housekeeper. It is Mercedes who goes to retrieve Ofelia after she wanders off to explore the grounds and finds an ancient stone maze in the rundown garden.

Carmen meets Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo), who will be attending her during her pregnancy. He seems kind and concerned; Ofelia learns that he is providing medical supplies to the resistance through Mercedes, whose brother is one of its leaders. Mercedes sees Ofelia watch her take the supplies from the doctor and worries about the security of her secret. Ofelia reassures her; her hatred for the Captain guarantees Mercedes’ and Dr. Ferreiro’s safety. We come to hate the Captain, too, when we watch him commit a heinous act of brutality just to teach one of his officers a lesson.

Ofelia looks for an escape from her unhappy world. She finds it when a praying mantis that has followed her car transforms into a fairy and leads her out of the house to the maze. She comes to a circle with a staircase leading deep below ground. When she reaches the bottom, she meets a half-human, half-ram faun (Doug Jones)—perhaps it is Pan himself. He instantly recognizes her as the long-lost princess and convinces her that she must complete three tasks to prove that her essence is still pure and take her rightful place in the underworld kingdom. He hands her a book and tells her to read it and complete the tasks before the next full moon, which is fast approaching.

Ofelia examines the book in private. Its pages are empty, but when the light hits it, words and drawings magically appear. Her first task is to go to the base of a very old tree that is being strangled by a giant toad. There she is to place three rubies in the toad’s mouth, which will kill it and free the tree. She runs out in a beautiful party dress her mother has gotten her to wear to a special dinner party the Captain is having that night to introduce Carmen to his friends. She carefully removes the dress, although she has muddied her party shoes, and crawls inside the tree to confront the toad and complete the task. Enormous beetles writhe all around her, and she is slimed by the toad before conceiving a clever way to complete her task. When she emerges from the tree with a magic key the toad coughed up, her party dress has blown into the mud. Her mother, who has already been shown a cold shoulder by her husband at the dinner party, expresses her disappointment that Ofelia has missed the dinner and ruined her dress.

Soon thereafter, Carmen’s pregnancy takes a bad turn. When Ofelia looks in her magic book for her next task, the pages reveal only a red and spreading stain. She runs to her mother and finds her hemorrhaging badly, in a scene of graphic horror. The Captain tells Dr. Ferreiro that if a choice must be made, to save his son over his wife. Ofelia overhears this conversation. She knows that if her mother dies, she will be utterly expendable.

Ofelia is given her second task. She must use the key to open a safe in a banquet hall and retrieve its contents. The faun admonishes her not to eat from the banquet table under any circumstances and to return to her home before an hourglass he gives her runs out of sand. He gives her a piece of chalk to draw a door to the banquet hall, which is the only way to reach it from her room, and three of his fairies to help her. A creature called Pale Man (also played by Doug Jones) slumbers at the table. She goes past him and retrieves the contents of the safe easily. But she pauses to eat two grapes, rousing Pale Man and sending him in pursuit of her. He eats two of the fairies, but Ofelia manages to escape. She hands the faun the item she brought back, an ancient dagger, but hands him back only one of the fairies in the box her gave her. The faun is furious that she did not listen to him and ends the trial.

Back in the real world, the hunt for the resistance fighters is on. The Captain has decided to starve them out of hiding and confiscates all of the food in the area and locks it away, taking the only key to the storeroom from Mercedes. The insurgents blow up two trains to create a diversion. When the troops return from investigating the explosion, the storeroom has been unlocked, and all of the food is missing. The Captain follows his hunches to uncover the conspirators in his household. A new doctor is put in charge of Carmen, and she dies in childbirth. In the meantime, Ofelia has been forgiven and allowed one more chance to complete her trial. She is instructed to bring her newborn brother to the faun. Unfortunately, the Captain sees her, and follows her into the maze where the film climaxes.

Pan’s Labyrinth spends as much time in the real world as in its fantasy world. Del Toro toggles between the stories expertly, relieving some of our tension at the horrible acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Captain by letting us escape with Ofelia. But he never allows the suspense to dissipate completely; this is no Disney fairytale. The trials are frightening, and Ofelia is put on her guard when Mercedes tells her that fauns cannot be trusted. Del Toro has shown his complete ease with make-believe in other films; therefore, he finds it unnecessary to decide whether Ofelia’s fantasy world is real or not. This decision frees the audience from worrying about this detail and allows it to surrender completely to his story. All directors could learn a lesson or two from del Toro’s less-is-more approach to CGI. The effects, CGI and otherwise, in this movie are sophisticated, subtle, and appropriate. They don’t seek to reinvent the wheel with regard to a fairytale look, yet still manage to be original and surprising, particularly the Pale Man creature.

There are a few over-the-top moments that knock this film off its masterpiece pedestal, but nonetheless, add to the audience’s enjoyment. The Captain’s villainy is poured on with a bit too much relish. One wince-inducing scene (the man in the seat next to me was doubled up and moaning in agony watching it) demonstrates that the Captain, far from being completely cold, relishes pain. It reminded me of a scene from Urban Cowboy (1980) in which the no-good Wes (Scott Glenn) is shown full-face, playing with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle he just emptied, twisting it between his teeth in a leer of pure evil. In another scene, Mercedes’ desperate run from the outpost ends in a far-too-pat moment designed strictly to provide a payoff to the audience.

Ultimately, we are left with a nagging question that melds the two stories together. Was the final test in the trial completed the way we are led to believe it was? I think that to win a kingdom, enormous sacrifices must be made. The resistance fighters understood this and were willing to lay down their lives to be free. In the end, Ofelia’s essential purity may have been what the faun was always after.

  • Roderick Heath spoke:
    6th/01/2007 to 1:48 am

    I wish Del Toro had followed Mexican compatriot Alfonso Cuaron and was making “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”. Boy, could he go to town with that book and its grand climax. Instead, they’ve got some no-name limey journeyman doing it…Aye caramba…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/01/2007 to 9:46 am

    I believe del Toro turned down one of the Harry Potter films to make Hellboy. Can’t find where I read that, though.

  • Mark spoke:
    3rd/02/2007 to 8:39 am

    Hi Marilyn,It was actually the first Narnia movie that del Toro turned down because, “as a lapsed Catholic, he couldn’t see himself bringing Aslan the lion back to life.” This “lapsed Catholic” theme is what connected most with me watching Pan’s Labyrinth. I noticed this in the priests association with the brutal fascists at the dinner table.Later, Ofelia asks her Mercedes, “Do you believe in fairies?” Mercedes replies, “I used to when I was a child. I used to believe many things that I don’t believe in any more.” I think Mercedes was an atheist. A woman who had outgrown childhood beliefs of fairies and religious superstition. Ofelia though, uses her belief in the fairy world to cope with the horrors of reality. She is delusional but it’s her escape. When Ofelia dies, she dies the death of a Catholic martyr. Salvation for the supernatural fairy world and salvation in Christianity seem to be intertwined. I found the ending most telling. Pan’s Labyrinth didn’t end with a shot of Ofelia living happily ever after in her fairy land (heaven), it ended with a material reality, the shot of the flower blooming was her legacy. If she had not killed the toad and allowed the tree to bloom, that flower would have never come to be. But wait! that means the fairies were real! 🙂 What we accomplish in life, how we live life, is what is important, not that we die. That’s how Pan’s Labyrinth spoke to me. The Fascist Capitan is denied a legacy for that very reason.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/02/2007 to 9:18 am

    Mark,Thanks for the information about Narnia and about del Toro’s lapsed Catholicism. Del Toro is heavily influenced by Luis Bunuel, whose anti-clericism is one of his hallmarks.I’m not sure I agree with your analysis of the film filtered through a Catholic ideology. What I liked about the film was that it skirted any ideology. It kept a child’s focus on the immediacy of experience, avoiding the tediousness that could have come from socialist rhetoric by the republicans or fascist ideology. It lets the audience understand the importance of people as opposed to causes and ideologies. In that I hardily agree with your final sentiment.

  • Mark spoke:
    3rd/02/2007 to 7:43 pm

    Here is a bit more clarification on the Catholic themes I see in Pan’s Labyrinth…I think whether the fairies are real or not is beside the point because del Toro makes it clear that immortality is based upon deeds; what one does in life and how one lives their life. Immortality is not based upon obedience to the Bible, to fairies, or fascist captains. Such obedience is not real goodness. If one does not kill, cheat, steal etc. simply because of what the Bible says, or what fairies tell you, then that is not TRUE goodness. People are telling themselves a fairy tale if they believe obedience will get them to heaven. Real goodness comes from inside, from actions that are done for their own sake. This is seen time and time again in the film. The doctor disobeys the Capitan. Ofelia disobeys the fairies and chooses another keyhole. She disobeys the faun and keeps her brother from him. Ofelia even disobeys her mother but for what reason? To save her life. The fairies are there to make the movie work as a fairy tale. If the fairies were not real, then Ofelia would never have been in any real danger and her trials would not have meant anything. If the fairies were real though then that must mean they are also part of the real world and the real world is what you, me and everyone else live in so there would be no difference anyway 🙂 The real point of the story was true goodness comes from inside and the only legacy you leave when you die is how you live your life. Blind obedience to anything is wrong, including the Bible. Remember what the doctor said to the captain?? “But captain, obey for obey’s sake… That’s something only people like you do”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/02/2007 to 8:42 pm

    I think I understand what you’re saying. I intentionally juxtaposed the photos of Ofelia with the faun and with the captain to show how similar they were, visually. Neither is truly trustworthy. In that sense, Ofelia’s doing what feels right to her is her act of free will and grace. Still, I don’t think that’s necessarily a Catholic point of view. Societies always tell us what to do to be “good”. Be a good little consumer and listen to your employer says American society. That’s capitalist, not Catholic. I still think that Ofelia’s rebellion was as futile as the Spanish republicans – good for her soul, but not for the real world. I don’t reject the importance of the real world, ephemeral as it is.

  • Mark spoke:
    3rd/02/2007 to 9:24 pm

    Societies always tell us what to do to be “good”. Be a good little consumer and listen to your employer says American society. That’s capitalist, not Catholic.I’m also considering the end of the film with the whole martyr, blood of innocents theme. That sounds specifically Catholic to me. The words of the priests in the film and the themes of sacrifice made me broaden my “blind obedience” is not a virtue observation to include Christianity (Catholicism) as well. After the movie a friend of mine commented that she would have liked the movie more if Ofilia had lived and I responded that she had to die else there would have been no Christlike sacrifice on her part.I still think that Ofelia’s rebellion was as futile as the Spanish republicans – good for her soul, but not for the real world.Ah! I would argue it wasn’t futile if it mattered to her. If her rebellion gave her meaning then it was meaningful. That her actions had no apparent consequence is beside the point. It’s an existential debate. Again though, the film’s end illustrated Ofilia’s actions/rebellions did have real world consequences.How do you reconcile all these, what I would call Christian themes, in Pan’s Labyrinth? You don’t see them as Christian per se, just human nature?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2007 to 9:02 am

    No, I suppose I don’t, but I won’t discourage your interpretation. I remember having a similar argument about “The Pledge,” which I did see as a religion-laden tale. I suppose what keeps me from interpreting it in a Catholic manner comes from what you said originally about del Toro: that he was a lapsed Catholic who couldn’t see himself resurrecting Aslan.What I see in del Toro’s films is a fatalism. If you remember “The Devil’s Backbone,” the few boys who escaped the orphanage seemed to give the film a sense of uplift for escaping the horrors of that place. In fact, however, they were about to enter a world more horrific than the one they left. Remember the rumor that the people on the outside were drinking the blood of children?”Pan’s Labyrinth” carries this theme forward beautifully. The blood of innocents, yes. But in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the sacrifice was demanded by a pre-Christian world represented by Pan. Ofelia ends up in that pre-Christian kingdom of the underworld, rather than the Christian heaven above. Pagan worship is of the earth; all of Ofelia’s trials took place below the surface or on the altar to the underworld.See, I bought Ofelia’s reality completely because she made it real for me. We can say such things don’t exist, but within the reality of this film, they do, convincingly so. I understand how the Catholic theme plays out, and I agree that to those for whom this religious ideology has meaning, the movie plays beautifully into it. But the movie is broader than that, and I believe del Toro meant it to be. I read an interview with him in which he said that his image of the faun was from a real experience he had as a child.

  • Mark spoke:
    4th/02/2007 to 11:47 am

    See, I bought Ofelia’s reality completely because she made it real for me. We can say such things don’t exist, but within the reality of this film, they do, convincingly so. I understand how the Catholic theme plays out, and I agree that to those for whom this religious ideology has meaning, the movie plays beautifully into it. But the movie is broader than that, and I believe del Toro meant it to be.Oh, I completely agree with you about this! My point was only that I noticed the “lapsed Catholic” themes, probably because I am a lapsed Catholic myself turned atheist. Pan’s Labyrinth is a bit like Excalibur in that there seems to be a conflict or parallel between the ancient Celt paganism and Christianity. I saw them as intertwined here.I have not seen The Devil’s Backbone yet but I plan to. I do hope that you are mistaken about the fatalism themes because to me that word connotes determinism and predestination. I like to think Ofelia was not fated, that she had a choice and that it mattered. As an existentialist, I believe we can create meaning for ourselves as people. Purpose is not something handed down from the supernatural. Purpose comes from within, like goodness. When someone like priests and fascist captains or something like fauns or bibles tells you how to act, and you know deep down that it’s wrong, disobey. By doing so, Ofelia had goodness, purpose, a legacy and ultimately, literal and metaphorical immortality. I liked this movie on many levels.I just want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review and talking to you about this. It just occurred to me, looking at the last picture in your review, that Ofelia looks as if she is about to click her (ruby) shoes together and say there’s no place like home.I’ll leave you with some comments del Toro made about the pale man with eyes in his hands.“The Pale Man represents the Church for me, y’know? [He] represents fascism and the Church eating the children when they have a perversely abundant banquet in front of them. There is almost a hunger to eat innocence. A hunger to eat purity. I didn’t want to avoid it, but I did not seek Catholic imagery. Nevertheless, I understand that redemption by blood and the rebirth by sacrifice is a Catholic conceit. So I accept it without any problems because I think that sexuality and religion come from your imprint in an early age. Whatever arouses your spirit or arouses your body at an early age, that’s what is going to arouse it the rest of your life. Everything will be subordinate to that. It’s a personal choice and it’s a personal experience. I don’t shame myself about being a lapsed Catholic and so if that cosmology appears in my movies, I’m fine with it.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2007 to 12:40 pm

    Thanks, Mark. There are a lot of ink and bytes out there about this movie. I only hoped to add something worth reading to the mix. I enjoyed it, too, and hope you’ll chime in on other films reviewed here.As to fatalism, well, we’re all going to die, so in that sense, our fate is predetermined. Death is a frequent subject for del Toro, so I guess that’s what I meant about fatalism. What happens in between is where the wiggle room comes in.

  • Foster Blake spoke:
    19th/02/2007 to 1:57 pm

    I followed and appreciated the exchange in these comments. The original source of del Toro’s allegory of the Lost Princess is that of the spirit becoming mortal and forgetting its divine source. Mortals are given the means by which to return to their original divine nature. Sometimes in teachings, and sometimes only in hints. This formula is repeated not only in the story of the Blue Rose, but also in the priest’s words at Carmen’s funeral – lines created by del Toro, not the Catholic canon. He intends to give strength to his allegory, and thereby acknowledge the spritual idea on which the allegory is based, by showing three unarguable scenes which, within the context of a “fantasy” film, should have removed all doubt as to his intentions (the chalk door, the moving walls and the sprouting fig blossom). It is the brutal context within which he hides his true story which clouds the audience’s belief in the allegory played out in front of us.So my opinion is that the source of his allegory is the same spiritual basis at the foundation of the Catholic Church:Q: Why did God make you?A: God made me to love Him, to serve Him, and to live with Him forever in Heaven.- From the Baltimore CatechismIt’s not always a lapse in faith that creates a lapsed Catholic.

  • spoke:
    6th/09/2014 to 9:18 am

    This is a movie with a simple and straightforward plot which contains layers and layers of intelligent writing, metaphors and message.

    To speak further about the script will end up in spoilers and that would be pointless since my very purpose writing this review is to encourage people to see it.

    This is no small feat, interpreting fantasy as something of a product of a real world, cross-referencing how the child acts to her real surroundings and the “other world”, metaphors that describe the accelerated state of growing up some of us are put through… Incredible. Simple, straightforward yet there is so much to be appreciated.

    Those who are saying how it’s predictable and thus not enjoyable, I ask of you, which movie nowadays aren’t predictable? Hell, even 21 grams was predictable but so damned good. It’s not about how it ends, you can always predict how a movie would end if you’ve ever taken a half-decent script writing class or have some common sense. It’s always about how well you tell a story.

    I’m grateful there are still directors who aren’t tied down to this new epidemic of including a plot twist simply because they need a plot twist.

    Pan’s Labyrinth features some of the best storytelling and attention to detail without being affected by the now ever-popular opinion of cameras having to be put through several technical difficulties to make the shots eligible to be called a brilliant shot.

    I am also grateful for them not dubbing it. Watching it in its’ original language is much, much more rewarding even if I had to rely on the subtitles for most of the time.

    This is a brilliant movie. Watch it.

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