“It’s a fairy tale,” you say, as you watch the trailer. And to an extent, you would be right. Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale shaped by Guillermo del Toro’s hands, one that doesn’t shy away from the blood that inevitably spills before the story comes to a close.
In 2007, it was a free pass for the day, a break from listening to a lecture on the perspectives found in “Rashomon” and “In a Grove.” My fellow Lit 13 classmates and I squeezed into a tiny room in the English Department and took our seats around a small TV to watch it, clueless to what we were about to see. Two hours later, I was blinking hard as the lights switched on, dazed from the experience and filled with an undeniable need to watch it all over again.
Ofelia (Ivana Basquero) is not the typical young woman that discovers she’s a princess, but a little girl who has only ever really had her mother as an influence. She’s quiet and bookish, but has a streak of curiosity that draws her out of a car to follow a flittering stick insect. She isn’t led into her “destiny,” but rather steps toward it.
What she finds is a maze of broken, moss-covered rocks on a farm in 1944, its tired walls of dark stone beckoning her down into a small alcove, where she encounters a faun (played by the impeccable Doug Jones). He implies that she is the lost Princess Moanna, and provides her with a book that will tell her the three tasks she must accomplish to prove her identity and return to her true home in the underworld.
None of the tasks are easy to complete, but they are still preferable to the brutality that Ofelia witnesses in real life: her new stepfather Captain Vidal is a cruel general, hyperfocused on the boy he’s sure Ofelia’s mother will give him. His mean streak—an understatement if there ever was one—comes out in full force as his Falangist soldiers try to crush Maquis rebel forces hiding in the forest, but interestingly enough, he does not display sadistic pleasure. The cruelty is a necessity, as vital as the unwavering obedience he demands from his soldiers. Ofelia’s three tasks ask her to weigh that cruelty against her desire for a different life, mirroring the rebels’ own motivations.
Pan bewitched me from the start because it never promised me a happy ending. For most of the film, the viewer is unsure if the faun is trustworthy: who would send a child into the belly of a tree to destroy a gluttonous toad, or into the lair of a monstrous creature that feeds on children? How could accomplishing these tasks prove that one is a princess of the underworld? Aren’t fairy tales just fantastical stories we tell to remove ourselves from the monotony of our own lives?
Real life doesn’t just seep into Pan. Ofelia’s life is all at once improved and tainted by her tasks, and she has to decide which world she will choose to believe in, because the moment she agrees to try, the doorways to both begin to close on her. She tries to reconcile them, to heartbreaking results. She is a child trying to prove she can be more, and how well she succeeds is both gratifying and tragic.
The film is also a sharp commentary on the role of women in each other’s lives. Ofelia’s mother, Carmen, is kind, but hardened by the loss of her husband (Ofelia’s father), and the necessary steps she’s taken to ensure that she and her daughter will have a comfortable, if not ideal life. She frustrates Ofelia, insisting that she obey the captain and fit into the role carved out for her. Still, the film hints that there is a deep sense of self-preservation and love for her daughter that drives Carmen, as deep as the exhaustion that radiates from her in every scene.
Mercedes, on the other hand, is defiant, using her role as Vidal’s housekeeper to support the rebels. She does not dismiss Ofelia’s curiosity but cautions her to channel it carefully. When she is pushed into a horrifying corner, she fights back with exactly the skills a man like Vidal would dismiss as useless. It’s easy to prefer Mercedes over Carmen, but both women are equally vital to Ofelia’s character development. They both display strength, albeit in different ways and at vastly different stages, and both women make decisions that they believe will ultimately provide safety and comfort for Ofelia.
Like her, I grew up with stories of faeries and elementals and monstrous creatures, told to me by the women in my life. Their experiences shaped my imagination and my perception of the world around me, much like they did for Ofelia. I learned to value the art of storytelling from them, to see beyond what my eyes noticed around me, and to be aware, always, that there is more than one way to view the world.
I can speak of these themes after seeing the film at least a dozen times, but my interest has not waned. If anything, it’s only grown more powerful, and I find that every time I watch Pan’s Labyrinth, I see new things in the words and images and plot twists. The conclusion can be interpreted in several ways, and each says more about the individual viewer than it does about the story itself. What do we choose to believe in? How do we live that belief, and share it with others?
The faun does nothing except tell Ofelia that she is Princess Moanna. It is Ofelia who gives us a story to experience.