Theological Moviegoings: Pan’s Labyrinth


Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s dark “fairy tale for grown-ups,” might best be described as non-escapist fantasy. The description holds up regardless of whether one sees the collision between the film’s real world and its fairy world as imagined or actual. In the former case, this is a story about a girl so miserable and alone in the real world that she manufactures an imaginary one to replace it, only to find that she cannot completely banish the harsh brutality which surrounds her. In the latter case, the film becomes the story of a girl who discovers that the world everyone else perceives exists alongside another, invisible world that remains somehow strangely familiar.

However, before any viewer begins to genuinely engage the rich network of themes and symbols that are in play throughout this movie, they will have confronted three strong elements that drive the film on a surface level; three being a number which, by strange coincidence (or is it?), plays a central role in the symbolic framework of Pan’s Labyrinth.

First, the movie tells two compelling stories that operate in parallel with one another to create a plot greater than the sum of its parts. Ofelia, the young heroine of the fairy world story, is unhappily accompanying her pregnant mother to a rural outpost in 1944 Spain where they will join her stepfather, a sadistic army captain working to stamp out a small guerilla force hiding out in the nearby mountains.

Mercedes, the adult heroine of the real world story, is the captain’s housekeeper, secretly in league with the guerillas led by her brother and playing a dangerous game of espionage. Both women struggle to do the right thing amidst dangerous and murky circumstances where the best choice is not always clear, and we watch in suspense as their fates hang in the balance.

Second, the movie is visually stunning. No one inspires character design like del Toro (as he has since proved again in Hellboy II). The titular Faun and the terrifying “Pale Man” are marvelous creations that stand out amidst a wealth of exciting and imaginative work. Despite the fantastical elements involved in the film, Pan’s Labyrinth never feels as though it has left concrete reality behind through the use of computer-generated effects or overly-fanciful aesthetics. Instead, the look and feel of the faun’s world complements the gritty reality of the captain’s world to the enrichment of both.

Finally, the movie refuses to pull its punches, raising the stakes through graphic depictions of horrific violence. In an early scene, Captain Vidal brutally destroys a man’s face with a flashlight, beating him again and again as the camera barely flinches and the soundtrack picks up the sickening crunch of breaking bones. Meanwhile, the fairy world can be just as terrible, such as when the Pale Man devours two of Ofelia’s companions after she has disobeyed the Faun’s instructions.

All of these things, the suspense and fascination of a well-told story, the gorgeous, eye-catching world of the film, and the grotesque violence that come with it, can be distracting to an audience not necessarily looking for subtext or a hidden meaning. Nevertheless, repeated viewings reveal a depth that is difficult to ignore. Not strictly allegorical, Pan’s Labyrinth is nevertheless a morality play with a suggestive layer of spiritual significance amidst the references to mythology and 20th-century Spanish history.

Ofelia feels instinctively that she somehow does not belong in the world that she inhabits. This is confirmed when she meets the Faun and learns that she is, in fact, the lost fairy princess described in the opening voice-over. This world is not her home, but before she can return to her true father, she must complete three tasks demonstrating courage, obedience, and sacrificial love.

Throughout her quest, we are led to suspect that the Faun is perhaps not as good as Ofelia believes him to be. He certainly is not safe. So it is natural to be suspicious when, after Ofelia has fouled up the second task by failing to follow instructions, the Faun returns to give her one more chance on the condition that she do exactly as he orders without question or pause. We have already been primed to mistrust this sort of demand by an earlier exchange between the doctor and Captain Vidal. (“To obey – just like that – for the sake of obeying, without questioning,” the doctor explains, “that’s something only people like you can do, Captain.”)

Ofelia does not witness this conversation, but she doesn’t have to. When the Faun, brandishing a ceremonial dagger, demands that she hand over her infant brother so that they may complete the final task, she refuses, even though he promises to only take a drop of blood. Ofelia shares the doctor’s strength of moral character, which is (of course) precisely what proves that she is the true princess after all.

Meanwhile, Mercedes has demonstrated the same qualities, though the world she must navigate is not nearly as black-and-white as Ofelia’s. At her lowest point, she is wracked by guilt and self-doubt because her position inside the Captain’s household, of such crucial importance to the resistance, has forced her to work alongside a man she knows is a monster. We know, however, that she is literally the key to the rebel’s continued survival and ultimate victory.

The end of Pan’s Labyrinth is left deliberately ambiguous by showing Ofelia die as she enters (or hallucinates) the fairy kingdom where her mother and father are waiting with the Faun. I would argue that, at least in terms of what this film has to say to an audience, resolution is irrelevant (although I suspect that the director leans towards the happier of the two possible endings). Whether or not the fairy world genuinely exists and is waiting beyond the grave to welcome Ofelia home again, Pan’s Labyrinth has answered all of the questions that it raises about obedience, choice, and moral character.

~ by Jared on September 29, 2009.

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