Pan's Labyrinth

Provost's Film Series

September 19, 2007


The Lion or the Labyrinth?

Guillermo del Toro turned down a trip to Narnia.  The Mexican filmmaker had already thrilled critics with his vampires and ghosts—and cranked out a couple “cheeseburger” horror flicks to feed Hollywood—when he was invited to direct C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles.  But the “lapsed Catholic,” who actually admired Lewis’s books, did not want to be “proselytizing anything about a lion resurrecting.” Instead, he devoted his next year to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), part fantasy, part horror flick, part historical fiction, an eerie fable about “choice and disobedience,” the dark underworld of Aslan’s universe. 

There’s no wardrobe to offer kids an escape from their dreary boredom and wartime isolation, but there was an armoire that figured strongly in Del Toro’s imagination.  According to the director, he once had a “lucid dream or something” and saw a menacing faun enter his room from behind his grandmother’s dresser.  The film eventually brings a twelve-year-old girl into a mysterious outdoor labyrinth, but it also carries some of the peril and menace of the magical work directly into her bedroom.  Admittedly, the evil of the film is often indulgent fun—joyfully sinister creatures and gothic palettes, much of it imported from comic books.  Some of that evil is decidedly Freudian, a carnival of the subconscious that haunts a child’s waking imagination.  And much of the evil can also turn sadistic, as the internal fears of the fairy tale meld with the real terrors of Fascist Spain.  This is, after all, a tale told after 9/11, which, according to Del Toro, changed nearly everything we know about brutality and innocence.



At one level, all the brutal and innocent imagery of Pan’s Labyrinth is a love song to the fairy tales, films and illustrations of youth.  To create his own saga, Del Toro borrows liberally from the writers and artists he devoured in his childhood.  There are “visual quotes” in the film from David Copperfield and Shirley Temple, from Hans Christian Anderson and Francisco Goya, as well as from what he calls the “Holy Trinity of children’s illustration”—Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, and Edmund Dulac.  There is also some modest pilfering from Hamlet.  Set in 1944, during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the story follows 12-year-old Ofelia as she moves in with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal, a slick-haired Fascist warlord who tracks down rebel guerillas.  She loves her mother, but resents her o’er-hasty marriage and suffers from her mother’s homilies against her apparent moodiness, attributed to her obsession with fairy tales.  She is not visited by her father’s ghost, though there are subtle hints that Vidal, like Shakespeare’s Claudius, had the child’s father killed to free up his wife.


The Ambiguity of a Faun

The escape from the oppressiveness of Spanish Fascism takes a magical twist when the young girl is enticed by an insect into a nearby labyrinth, where she meets a faun, a moss-covered, pasty-eyed creature with stilted legs. In its original Spanish-language release, the film's title literally meant “The Labyrinth of the Faun,” but fauns do not show up often in American tales and the film got a classical name when it was marketed for English-speaking audiences.  Del Toro was irked by the change.  Ofelia’s strange guide is not at all like the Pan of Greek myth, but rather something closer to the archetypal trickster of folklore.   He is unreliable, an alter ego of Dante’s Virgil, who guides his traveler into the underworld without assurances of emerging toward a final beatific vision. The faun is intentionally ambiguous, Del Toro admits, both a “creature of destruction” and a “creature of nurturing and life.”

The faun is also a link to the mythology and wonder of the pre-Christian world. Raised by his Catholic grandmother—who taught piety by putting sharp bottle caps in his shoes to make his feet bleed like martyrs—Del Toro is eager to escape the “fantasy” of the Church.  The labyrinth is drawn from images of the Celts who left Spain before Catholicism took hold.   All too often, Del Toro claims, modern religion crushes the spirit of magic and insulates children from the violence of the world.  Pan’s Labyrinth tries to “speak to the true origins of fairy tales, which were conceived to be parables told by the fire,” and full of war, incest, patricide, disease and even cannibalism. “There is a point in our lives,” Del Toro claims, “when we are kids when literature and magic and fantasy has as strong a presence in our soul as religion would have in later days . . . it’s a spiritual reality as strong as when people say, ‘I accept Jesus into my heart.’  Well, at a certain age, I accepted monsters into my heart.” 


Catholic Cosmology

But the Catholic temper of Del Toro’s mind does not entirely disappear. When one of his friends called Pan’s Labyrinth a “truly Catholic film,” he insisted that it was “a truly profane film, a layman’s riff on Catholic dogma,” but soon all but conceded the point:  “I am a lapsed Catholic and nevertheless I am taken by the cosmology I was taught as a child, and I cannot just shake it off.” Del Toro’s contempt for the church is transparent.  His own spirituality is iconoclastic, presumably in the name of democracy and justice:  “I don’t believe in religion making us different; I believe in spiritual conceits that make us equal.”  The alliance of organized religion and political terror is most forcefully shown in the scenes with the emaciated Pale Man, who languishes from hunger in front of a lavish feast, a parody of the indulgent spread enjoyed by Vidal, his priest and their guests just a few scenes earlier.  At Vidal’s banquet, the spineless musings of the priest were taken, almost verbatim, from a speech by a priest in Nazi Germany.  No sooner do we see the Pale Man sitting in his austere room—a place with a “church-like feel,” according to Del Toro—than the camera pans to a heap of shoes, a shadow of Auschwitz.  Faceless, the pale man has only two open eye sockets:  the eyeballs are kept on a plate before him, just like a painting of St. Lucy that once haunted Del Toro in church.  The food remains untouched:  the Pale Man feeds solely on “innocence.” Soon, the hideous figure bites off the head of a fairy, an image borrowed from Francisco Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Children.”  He sets off in pursuit of Ofelia, nearly cornering her in a scene that, as Del Toro boasts, made Stephen King squirm.     


The Spanish Civil War

Distrust of the organized church is almost inextricably linked to the film’s political landscape, which unveils some longstanding resentment of Christians’ complicity with the Fascists. “Politics and organized religion,” he asserts, “are much more fairy tales than fantasy.”  Like Del Toro’s earlier film The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth occurs in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that he says “never really healed in Spain.”  Between 1936 and 1939, the nation’s elected government—a left-center alliance known as the Popular Front—was under siege from the pro-Catholic, traditionalist National Front, led by the military forces of Francisco Franco.  During their brief rule, the Popular Front—a league of Socialists, Communists, and liberal Republican groups—pushed agrarian reforms, redistributed land to peasants, encouraged Catalan independence, and subverted the Church, even quietly condoning the burning of convents.  Enraged by the assault on Catholicism, as well as with the general economic unrest, the National Front advocated the restoration of the monarchy.  From their haven in Morocco, Franco’s “Armies of Africa” launched a rebellion, soon claiming control over large portions of both southern and northern Spain.  Supported by Germany and Italy, the National Front resisted liberal socialism and embraced fascism, enough to prompt numerous intellectuals—from Ernest Hemingway to André Malraux and George Orwell—to take up arms with the Popular Front.  It was a cause that failed.  In 1939, when the action of The Devil’s Backbone takes place, all of the major Spanish cities—Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona and finally Madrid—would fall to Franco, and the Nationalist forces set out to track down and destroy guerilla clusters in the countryside.  That film, in its allusive way, depicts an island of resistance:  a group of young boys, trapped in an isolated school and surrounded by vacant, wind-swept plains, become prey for a proto-Fascist young sadist who wishes to wipe the institution and its pupils from the landscape.  The ghost of the tale—a murdered child—also intimates something of the National Front’s atrocities, now coming to light. “What is a ghost,” the spectral narrator of the film asks, “except a tragedy doomed to repeat itself over and over again?”

And, of course, the violence does repeat itself.  Pan’s Labyrinth flashes forward five years, when Franco’s officers are still seeking to crush the guerilla resistance, which actually continued well into the 1950s.  These are the last gruesome days of “la Feroz Matanza,” the “fierce slaughter.”  Between the end of the Civil War in 1939 and the setting of the film, more than 150,000 civilians were killed, many executed by Franco’s loyalists in open daylight.  Captain Vidal certainly does his part, shooting dissidents with cold-blooded casualness.  It is also no accident that Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944:  this is the year of the Normandy invasion, when most of Europe began to kindle hope for liberation, and the Spanish resistance guerillas turned more than a few favors for the Allies by sabotaging mines.  But their reward for heroism, Del Toro observes, was to be “abandoned to Franco’s dictatorship for decades.” The guerillas in Pan’s Labyrinth increasingly fuse with the magical world, as if they might escape the bitter fate of their history.  They emerge out of the early morning sunlight, or slip out from behind the dark silhouettes of tree trunks, often while the camera scans horizontally, as if we are caught in a game of hide-and-seek. They are ruddy and ethereal, forest spirits as well as the sad specters from one chapter in Spanish history still waiting atonement.


Desperate Hopefulness

That longing for redemption—where politics morph into fantasy—reaches well beyond the Spanish peninsula:  Latin American literature and films often entrust the people’s hopes to magic realism.  By his own report, Del Toro took on the Spanish Civil War as his backdrop largely because Mexican producers were reluctant to finance stories about Mexican revolutions, but for Mexican intellectuals the Spanish conflict has always been entwined with their own identity and longing for wonder.  Del Toro’s film was virtually foretold by the acclaimed Mexican poet Octavio Paz, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, a treatise on Mexico’s isolation and yearning.  “I remember that in Spain during the civil war,” Paz writes, “I had a revelation . . . of another kind of solitude—not closed, not mechanical, but open to the transcendent.  No doubt the nearness of death and the brotherhood of men-at-arms at whatever time and in whatever country, always produces an atmosphere favorable to the extraordinary, to all that rises above the human condition and breaks the circle of solitude that surrounds each one of us.” Ofelia, of course, is more than just an allegorical stand-in for Mexico, but I do wonder if this parable shudders with just a bit of Mexico’s desire to escape its own insularity.  Her labyrinth, at least initially, is her escape from her own bitter circle of solitude. As the story of the rebels—those brothers and sisters near death—becomes more and more magical, she discovers some kindred spirits on the threshold of the fantastic.  Del Toro can’t change history and let the rebels vanquish Franco, but he can at least bring them to the fringe of the labyrinth, at the doorstep of the transcendent, where they intercept Ofelia’s brother from his cruel dad and vindicate her sacrifice.  They embody, in the words of Paz, “something like desperate hopefulness.”


Horror and Redemption

Horror films have moved increasingly from the margins into the mainstream of American pop culture. On the one hand, the taste for horror films betrays a distrust of Christian teaching and preaching, as if traditional Christian lessons cannot fully address our existential fears or brutality and despair. After all, “dissatisfaction with Christian teaching,” according to the Jungian folklorist Marie-Louise von Franz, “and the first longings for a more vital, earthy" religion are what prompted the Brothers Grimm to gather up their tales. But horror tales have also seized the attention of many Christian viewers who, at least a generation ago, would have avoided the genre like whiskey.  For some believers, horror has grown in relevance because it has become the genre that most seriously acknowledges the reality of evil. 

Pan’s Labyrinth is such a pastiche of myths, images and stories that we would be foolish to look for a steady morale, but the cascade of fears and fantasies does reveal a longing for redemption.  This film settles for neither comedic violence nor nihilistic bloodletting:  it is, in the end, a film about hope, or, as J.R.R. Tolkien might say, a eucatastrophe, a magical finale that echoes the Christian message of redemption through virtue and sacrifice.  Whether the Christian ideals are at the core of the message, or merely some residue from the director’s upbringing, may depend on the eye of the beholder.  At the end of the film, Ofelia will face a final choice, and we are left to ponder whether virtue rests in compliance or disobedience.  There are certainly hints of redemption.  Images of death on a cold stone will be juxtaposed with a luminous vision, filled with a burnished otherworldly light.  Does the director who did not want to resurrect Aslan actually hold out hope for transcendence into the spiritual world?  One could certainly argue that the final burnished tableau is a retreat into a world of childlike fantasy, the realm of Rackham and Dulac that Del Toro loved in youth.  And yet it also appears that the young protagonist can be redeemed only through maturation—through courage, self-denial and even disobedience that is anything but childish.