Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sergei Lopez, Maribel Verdu, and Ivana Baquero.
Images from the 2007 New Line 2-disc Platinum Series.
Pan's Labyrinth may be a movie I'm too close to, but as Jim Emerson has said (repeatedly): If a movie is worth talking about, then let's talk about it.
Why is it that I rank del Toro's movie so high? Is it sentimentality? Its place for me, personally, as a gateway into cinema that moves beyond the form of entertainment? In a way, I find these movies tougher (or perhaps more daunting) to talk about, but that shouldn't stop us. Citizen Kane seems to have fallen into an almost automatic place at the top of many people's lists of bests (or worsts). But if we like a movie, we have to like it for a reason. "Just cuz" doesn't cut it. So why is Pan's Labyrinth so special for me?
Movies are, at their heart, an acceptance of the screen's reality and departure from our own. Ultimately, though, our escape is still standing on the border between two worlds. As a movie lover, I am fascinated by that line: the division between our reality and another, which Pan's Labyrinth balances upon like a seasoned gymnast. Its interest is not plunging into the fantasy world but standing at the doorway separating the two realities. Pan's Labyrinth is many things tied together and rolled into one: A coming of age parable, fairy tale, rumination on escape from the horrors of reality, and an existential dichotomy of physicality and transcendence.
From the very first shot, we can already see a focus on a transitional state; one of transcendence between two concepts. The camera pans across darkness to cinematically reverse Ofelia’s later death, and then shows her ascending from the underworld into our own. The film uses the screen to reciprocate birth and death; events bookending lives and heralding the arrival and departure from a world of suffering. Indeed, the film carries with it spiritual currents in tune with Buddhism or Christ’s teachings that acknowledge and shed light upon the suffering inherent to life and the burden of physicality. It’s the level of existentialism found in The Seventh Seal, although its ultimate prospect isn’t as grim.
I've heard two criticisms of the movie, neither of which I feel address any significant flaw in the picture. The first is the characters' simplicity; the idea being they haven't been "fleshed out" enough but remain archetypal. The problem with this line of reasoning lies in applying judgment for one type of movie to another and assuming these criteria are universal. Fantasy, and more specifically a fairy tale, necessarily simplifies its characters into archetypes. It's as fundamental to the genre as breaking out into song is for musicals. A problem with the characters not being "John Cassavetes characters" (to use del Toro's phrasing) is a problem with the entire genre and not the execution of making the film.
The other criticism is that not enough time is spent in the fantasy world. Yes, we are left craving more of the movie's visual delights, but to depart from reality any more would compromise the picture thematically. Again, this has to do, in part, with understanding the role of fairy tales. To view fantasy solely as a means of escape is to miss the point. Rather, the genre is a way of confronting and clarifying ideas and issues in the real world. By extension, this is what any type of fiction generally seeks to do: to hold the looking glass up to the world.
If you know your fairy tales, you know many of them are really coming of age stories that allegorize adolescence into narratives, often involving curses, princes, princesses, and sexual repression. Ultimately, what many of these have in common is a progression from naiveté to a greater awareness of adulthood. This is growth that Ofelia undergoes in Pan’s Labyrinth. Early on, she’s blithely ignorant of her mother’s pains; distracted by her imagination and books while her mother staggers from the burden of pregnancy.
Children view the world through a simplified lens that is simultaneously a gift and a limitation. Their blissful ignorance leaves them hermetically insulated from experiencing complex feelings of pain and anguish, but also incapable of empathy beyond simplified emotion. Ofelia understands her mother is lonely, but cannot distinguish physical and adult loneliness, or mother-daughter love vs. adult love. Her mother tells her she’ll understand when she’s older.
Ofelia is Princess Moanna in the Underworld. Yet in her Earth life, her mother treats her as a princess too, and dotes upon her with dresses and patent leather shoes. In this sense, her cinematic death could be read as marking a spiritual death of the childhood self (princess). The film, therefore, serves as a “cutting out” of the princess. Consider, too, the scene where Mercedes is milking the cow and tells Ofelia to be careful because “we can’t have you getting milk on your new dress.” Indeed, the Ofelia of the movie does not enter nubility and remains a princess. Her maturation over the film’s course is not one of sexuality, but of a different kind.
Just as there isn’t one type of love, maturity isn’t simply defined by a person’s chronological progression into adulthood. Beyond physical development is mental and spiritual maturation, which is the focus of Pan’s Labyrinth. It isn’t necessarily determined by age, but occurs as a result of compassion being born within us. Perhaps Ofelia’s transcendence to the Underworld not only marks the removal of the physical child, but also heralds spiritual wisdom and understanding that the common denominator is our mortality in the corporeal world.
Ofelia and Captain Vidal value life, but that is where their commonality ends. The difference lies in why. Captain Vidal is archetypal, but the movie isn't a character study and that shouldn't be seen as a fault. Rather, Vidal comes to represent a side of humanity; one that values life not as an end to itself, but out of fear towards the alternative. Vidal's character is structured around actions and habits focusing on worldly, material concerns. The first time we see him, he's staring at his pocket watch with a Quentin-esque gaze a la The Sound and the Fury; a motif that's repeated over and over. The watch represents the one white elephant he can't dispose of or wield. His "bienvenidos" to Carmen is really by proxy: his physical actions revealing a concern only for his son, which is the closest he can get to immortality.
I don't think del Toro is calling Captain Vidal a villain so much as an attribute of humanity that we deny out of shame, but must ultimately accept in its presence, to whatever degree, within ourselves. Life, for Vidal, is merely the alternative to death and as such is not valued for the sake of life alone. Consider the story that Ofelia tells to her mother’s womb of the rose atop a mountain surrounded by venomous thorns. The rose brings the promise of immortality, but:
“Men talked amongst themselves about their fear of death, and pain, but never about the promise of eternal life.”
This story overlaps with Vidal cleaning his pocket watch. When I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth, I made the connection that he was a man who did strive for the rose of immortality. Yet this would elevate him, and I don’t think that’s the point. There is too much commonality between Vidal and our own material concerns. What the rose suggests is not immortality in the physical realm, but the spiritual one. Del Toro is arguing for the eternal existence of the soul, but only if we allow ourselves to see that. The story regards “men” generally, meaning those of us who treasure life out of fear from death. This is something all of us face to some extent and Vidal is emblematic of that fear.
His obvious concern for his son cannot be disregarded if we face that thought ourselves. Hackneyed ideas are what they are because we continue to dismiss them as such. If we fear death, then let us acknowledge that. With our children lies the hope that some part of us will remain once we’ve left. Yet the narrow view through which Vidal sees this isn’t sufficient to grant us immortality or even a legacy, del Toro is arguing. What does blood even mean as an end to itself? Ofelia takes after Doctor Ferreiro and Mercedes more than Vidal or even her own mother. The movie talks of family that transcends and subverts the blood-axiom.
Consider Mercedes, too. Upon hearing one of the rebels has been captured, her thoughts turn immediately to her brother, Pedro. Yet it isn’t with relief that she reacts to learning it was instead the stuttering rebel. She’s still affected because she realizes that the prisoner is still her brother, if not by blood. The image of Mercedes, lost in thought and chopping potatoes, isn’t one of fear that she’ll be ratted out. It’s one of compassion and sorrow for a brother in spirit. Yet her strength lies in noticing that incorporeal idea. Her strengths (in spirit) and weaknesses (in physical being and location) are reciprocal to Vidal’s.
Women are strong. We’ve been down this road a lot. Much of the time, this is emphasized by their ability to give birth where men cannot. Yet that is only the starting point. Carmen and Mercedes come to form two types of mother figures to Ofelia. One by blood, and the other by adoption (in spirit). Carmen displays the woman’s traditionally held power: pregnancy. But del Toro isn’t really focusing on that strength per se. What the film does is elaborate this idea beyond the physical. Mercedes carries her knife hidden against her abdomen. Where Carmen wields the ability to give birth, Mercedes holds the ability to subvert the expectations given to women. Vidal’s thinking is limited to these conventions and that ultimately proves his downfall.
I’d also point to the chalk. When Vidal picks it up, it breaks. He lacks the mindset to wield that key into understanding spirituality and transcendence. The movie uses the fairy tale as an allegory for reality, something that Vidal could never comprehend (I doubt he’d watch movies very much). The tasks Ofelia performs are somehow connected to something she, or someone parallel to her, must overcome in real life.
The fig tree is a source of bounty and fertility, yet the monstrous Toad has festered its roots. The tree, and more specifically the entrance, is a maternal image and parallels Ofelia’s mother. The introduction of the toad, of course, is Vidal. Ofelia tricks the toad into eating the stones to obtain the key. Similarly, Mercedes uses Vidal’s own pride and underestimation of women against him, evident in the store room key. Ofelia’s ingenuity also foreshadows her spiking Vidal’s drink with the sleeping medicine; combining something tempting with something deadly. The ultimate idea of this task is that Ofelia confronts her fear and gains independence.
The Pale Man sequence holds another key to understanding del Toro’s message. Namely, it is the idea of choice, regardless of benevolence. I’ll point to the strong parallels between Vidal and the Pale Man: both pose a significant obstacle to Ofelia/Mercedes/Doctor Ferreiro, both hoard a mountain of food in their abode tempting their enemies, and finally, they are both defined by their physical action. The Pale Man is the fantasy surrogate for Vidal, his eyes and perception literally and figuratively indivisible from his actions (his palms, in this case). Anything he sees is an action, and any action he takes necessarily guides his sight. In other words, his sight is confined to his physicality and he is incapable of transcending his body. Notice, too, that the Pale Man is stuck in his realm, whereas Ofelia is able to pass freely from one to another.
The Pale Man scene also plays out like Eden. Yet del Toro’s take on this isn’t one of reprimand, but one of acceptance as a necessary trait defining humanity. Utopia is not a place of growth and learning, del Toro is saying. Casting out of Eden was a necessary step in humanity’s coming of age. Ofelia needs to defy the Faun’s instructions because it is her choice. Limiting our free will limits our spiritual maturity, which is the distinction the movie is making from sexual maturity.
Pan’s Labyrinth is ultimately a movie arguing for spirituality. Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, spirituality can still exist as a belief. It involves moving beyond physical appearance to read between the lines. Whether this manifests itself as God, Allah, or whatever misses the point. Rather, it is the idea that we are not limited by our bodies.
“It is only in His physical absence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.”