‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ twists beyond fractured fairytale

By Marilyn MacLaren, Staff Writer

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a Spanish dark fantasy film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. The story follows a young girl named Ophelia, played by Ivana Baquero, as she adjusts to her new life at a military base in Spain in 1944 during the Francoist regime, a dictatorship that emerged after the Spanish Civil War. In order to cope with these changes, Ophelia escapes to a fantasy world inhabited by a mysterious Faun who tells her how to reclaim her throne as the lost Princess Moanna of the Underworld. 

The film also stars Sergi López as Captain Vidal, the sadistic military officer obsessed with the power of the new regime as well as cruel stepfather to Ophelia. As the clear antagonist of the film, the relationship Vidal has with Ophelia in the real world is mirrored in the interactions she has with various creatures in the Underworld, particularly the Faun and the Pale Man, both played by Doug Jones. 

The Faun, who increasingly demands obedience from Ophelia to the point of committing murder, reflects how Vidal values respect and loyalty from his men and the cruelty he shows anyone who is against the new regime. López excels in making Vidal a truly heinous villain, fitting as a monster in both the real world and, on a greater scale, in the fantasy Ophelia uses to escape from him.

Considering the historical setting, Ophelia and her coping mechanisms in understanding the world around her are purposely left ambiguous. Elements of the fairytale world are apparent in her everyday life, most notably the labyrinth and its physical structure found in the forest, and acknowledged by others outside of her perspective. 

This is where she initially encounters the Faun who explains her royal lineage and the three tasks she must complete to prove she is the lost princess. Only Ophelia can see the Faun, fairies and other mythical beings, but the reactions of the adults in her life vary and show their influence in her fantasies. 

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While her mother is ill and sees no benefit to Ophelia indulging in fairytales, especially after seeing how it upsets her husband, the housekeeper Mercedes, played by Maribel Verdú, takes a different approach. Mercedes provides Ophelia the comfort she desperately seeks from her mother, understanding from her personal position as a rebel who is terrified of Vidal how crucial it is for Ophelia to retain this childhood innocence through her faith in fairytales.

The ending in particular alludes to this ambiguity, as the audience is left to interpret – spoiler alert – Ophelia’s death at the hands of Captain Vidal, who tried to take her little brother. The audience sees Ophelia literally spiral from this world to rejoin her mother and father in the Underworld as the Princess, to an adoring crowd and a celebration, with Mercedes left singing a lullaby over her body. In this way, Del Toro still provides some closure for Ophelia and the brutality of her death; what could be seen as a hopeful ending for her and the rebellion. 

In contrast, Mercedes’ journey is anything but a fairytale, filled with the grim realities of living under this new dictatorship. Yet, her own challenges of remaining undercover while still providing for her brother and the resistance guerilla fighters mirror the quests Ophelia must accomplish. Mercedes faces the same demons Ophelia has transformed to fit her fairytale world, manifesting in Captain Vidal and the war crimes of the regime itself.

Del Toro captures the innocence of childhood through Ophelia as a protagonist, with the charming worldview she has regarding the regime and adjusting to her new family life, in a way a child would be able to make sense of it. Although aspects of the film take from other well-known fairy tales and myths, this is a story specifically centered on Ophelia, which integrates the violence and gore of a divided Spain, and exaggerates threats into sinister creatures she must face on her own.


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