By Molly Dugan
In the film Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno in Spanish), post-civil war Spain is under the authoritarian rule of Francisco Franco which serves as the perfect setting for the dark and tragic storytelling for which Mexican writer and director Guillermo del Toro has become known. The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, Ofelia, who has moved with her pregnant mother to a military post in the mountainous countryside of Spain where her new stepfather Captain Vidal is posted to root out resistance to Franco’s regime. Soon after arriving Ofelia finds herself pulled into a fantasy world that at first appears to be an improvement on or escape from the grim reality she has encountered there in the mountains. However as the plot thickens we find that it’s not that easy for Ofelia to escape from the situation at hand. Del Toro uses the dictatorial and inhumane methods employed by Captain Vidal to portray on a smaller level the nature of the Franco regime, a military dictatorship in Spain. Through the fantasies that engage Ofelia and the tragic end that they come to, he shows the undeniable and inescapable effects that totalitarianism, oppression, and war have on the lives of innocent victims. The setting and events of this movie use childish but dark fantasies as a symbolic representation of the long and frustrating struggle that Spain experienced against the despotic Francisco Franco. Pan’s Labyrinth does not chronicle actual historical events, but through fantasy and metaphors paints a picture of the environment and the mentality that existed during the time period the film portrays.
The film begins with the arrival of Ofelia and her pregnant mother Carmen to Captain Vidal’s post in the mountains. We see right away that Ofelia’s mother is not in good health, and Captain Vidal is concerned for the health of the child, who he insists will be a son. We also see immediately that Ofelia has an extremely active imagination and almost as soon as she arrives her attention is captured by an insect she perceives to be a fairy. It leads her to the woods where she meets Mercedes, one of the more sympathetic characters who we later find out is aiding the guerillas in the mountains.
Later this same insect turns into a fairy and leads Ofelia to the labyrinth, where a faun instructs her to complete three tasks so that she can return to her father as Princess Moanna. Before Ofelia is given the first task her mother gives her a dress that she’s to wear to an important dinner, but Ofelia wanders off to complete the task and she ruins the dress. At dinner Ofelia’s absence goes unnoticed by Captain Vidal and his guests, who spend the time discussing Vidal’s father’s death during a battle.
Ofelia’s mother’s health takes a turn for the worse and she is put on bed rest, while Ofelia is moved to another bedroom. Captain Vidal tells the doctor that in the event that he has to choose between Carmen and the baby that he is to save the baby. The faun from the labyrinth tells Ofelia that if she puts mandrake root in a bowl of milk under her mother’s bed her mother will recover. After doing this Ofelia completes the second task, which is arguably the most suspenseful and shocking scene of the whole film. Del Toro’s ability to create original and scary imagery is showcased in Ofelia’s fantasy world, particularly by the monster that appears during her second task. However, because Ofelia disobeyed the faun in the process of completing the task, he refuses to give her the third.
The grim turn of events in Ofelia’s fantasy world is mirrored by those on earth. After torturing a rebel nearly to death, Vidal orders Dr. Ferreiro to keep him alive so that Vidal can extract more information from further agony. However he kills the doctor for disobeying him. Not much later the Captain finds the mandrake under Carmen’s bed, and Carmen disposes of it. She subsequently goes into labor and dies, although to the relief of the Captain, the baby is healthy.
With the death of her mother the only remaining figure that Ofelia has to look to for support is Mercedes, but things continue to go downhill as Captain Vidal finds out that Mercedes is a spy for the resistance. When she tries to escape Vidal catches her and ties her up to be tortured, but she uses a knife that she has concealed on her person to free herself and she runs away. The Captain’s men pursue her, but just as we think they have her cornered they are shot down by the rebels in the hail of gunfire.
It’s around this time that the faun decides to give Ofelia another chance. He instructs her to bring her baby brother into the labyrinth with her, so she drugs the Captain and sets out for the labyrinth with her brother. However Vidal sees her and though he is slowed down by the drugs he pursues her determinedly. Ofelia makes it to the labyrinth safely only to find that the faun wants to use her baby brother’s blood-“the blood of an innocent”- to complete the task of opening the portal to the realm in which she would be able to live as a princess. Ofelia is once again chastised by the faun for disobedience before he disappears. When the Captain shows up, he shoots Ofelia and takes the baby. However, on his way out he is cornered by the rebels, who take the baby and kill him, informing the Captain that his son will never know his name.
From the beginning the film blatantly portrays Captain Vidal, a representative of the Fascist regime, as cruel, violent, and irrational. His domineering manner, his cold attitude toward Ofelia, her mother, and his subjects all serve to illustrate this. The cinematography, the darkness of the setting, and the morbid imagery that permeates even Ofelia’s fantasy world symbolize the bleakness of the political situation in Spain during the Franco years. The country suffered the loss of many important intellectuals who fled from the rule of the Falange party (Spain’s Fascist party).
Vidal unnecessarily kills a group of men who were arrested on suspicion of aiding rebels but were actually hunting rabbits, and upon finding evidence that they really were just rabbit hunters, the Captain reacts indifferently, blaming his officer for not questioning the men correctly. Later we see him torturing a rebel for information.
The heroic characters in the film are the guerrillas and those aiding the resistance. Mercedes who works as Vidal’s housekeeper quietly uses her connections to aid the revolutionaries that are hiding in the mountains, while Dr. Ferreiro who is treating Ofelia’s mother is also giving medical attention to the guerillas.
Pan’s Labyrinth is an unexpectedly dark and twisted movie. The atmosphere created by del Toro places the viewer in the mindset of a scared child observing a frightening situation that she doesn’t understand. While the plot of the movie is filled with small vestiges of hope for the protagonists, these all slowly disappear. At first the fantasy world inhabited by the faun seems to provide some hope for Ofelia to escape from the untenable situation that she is forced to endure. However when the faun turns on her for her “disobedience” it becomes clear that there is something sinister about that world as well, and when he demands that Ofelia harm her baby brother, that suspicion is confirmed. The death of Ofelia’s mother is also huge blow to the viewer’s hope for a positive resolution to the story, but the event that really highlights the sadness and hopelessness of the movie is not the death of Ofelia’s mother, but when Vidal shoots Ofelia. This shows not only the end of any hope for Ofelia but the ruthlessness employed by the Francoists in order to maintain power.
Francisco Franco held power in Spain for more than twenty-five years. The failure of the rebels in this movie mirrors the failure of the resistance against the Francoists in real life. However, although the end is tragic, the survival of Ofelia’s baby brother and the rebels’ declaration to Vidal that his son will “never even know his name” are symbols of the hope for the following generation.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark, sad, and strange movie that seeks to portray the effects of totalitarianism, war and oppression through symbolism and metaphors. Del Toro succeeds masterfully at this feat, and while the events that take place are only loosely based on actual historical events, they portray remarkably the hopelessness and desperation felt by people forced to live under violent dictatorships.