The Spanish movie Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro spoke to me in a way that the other films did not, mostly as a result of Ivana Baquero and Maribel Verdú’s incredibly commanding acting. First and foremost, young Ofelia reminded me of myself as a child; her love of books, trusting nature with the faun, and powerful imagination also help to fortify Ofelia’s innocent, child-like image. Also compelling is how adamant Ofelia is with her beliefs of the mythical world. Regardless of her mother insisting that fairies and fauns do not exist, Ofelia nevertheless stays true to her mission that the faun has given her. In regards to the character of Mercedes, I also felt extremely close with her because of her headstrong attitude and bravery for helping the rebels right under the Captain’s nose. In these ways, it was the characters that made me attracted to El laberinto del fauno more than any other movie.
Actors aside, I appreciated the movie’s use of lighting to convey emotion and create contrast between good and evil. For example, the opening scene entails Ofelia and her mother being chauffeured through a forest during the springtime; the abundance of light green foliage and the sun streaming through the trees not only set the stage for the mythical script, but also convey a happy and calm feeling. Perfectly opposing this setting, the next scene is dreary and dimly lit; the combination of rain, dark military clothes, and the strict attitude of Captain Vidal create a serious and depressing mood. Throughout the movie, scenes of the military encampment are used to emphasize the need for Ofelia to complete her tasks for immortality and to escape her human life. As a viewer, this heightened my interest in the film and accentuated the character bond I felt with Ofelia.
The internationally acclaimed Mexican film director was born in Guadalajara in 1964 and began creating short films before he was ten years old. Upon mastering the art of special effects make-up, del Toro formed Necropia, a production company, and cofounded the Guadalajara International Film Festival. Brought up as a devout Catholic, del Toro combines his religious beliefs with his fascination of dark fantasy to create lucid dream-like films such as El laberinto del fauno. Guillermo del Toro has won multiple Ariel, BAFTA, and Goya awards for his productions, and has been honored with 12 different awards for Pan’s Labyrinth alone.
A narrator begins the tale within the depths of the underworld, where a young Princess Moanna yearns to leave the confines of her home and explore the world above. Upon escaping from the rule of her father, king of the underworld, she is blinded by the sun and loses her memory. Alone and confused, Princess Moanna becomes ill and dies, only to be born again as a half-mortal being. Heartbroken, her parents set up multiple portals throughout the world, waiting and hoping for her spirit to return to them again. Here the storyline shifts from the magical to a new protagonist, Ofelia, living in fascist Spain in 1944. Ofelia accompanies her pregnant mother, Carmen, to a military barrack over which Captain Vidal, Carmen’s new husband, presides. Cruel and sadistic, the Captain is essentially using Carmen to bear him a son, and has no interest in Ofelia whatsoever. After the long trek to the encampment, Carmen becomes ill and is bed-ridden; causing Ofelia to absorb herself in her imagination, perhaps as a means of evading the frightening reality of her new home. Given that Carmen is unable to fulfill her motherly duties, Ofelia finds comfort in Mercedes, the Captain’s housekeeper who is secretly working for the rebels. One night, a fairy disguised as a praying mantis visits Ofelia and beckons her to follow it through an old, abandoned maze.
There she meets a faun who introduces himself as an old friend and tells Ofelia how she is the lost princess of the underworld. In order to prove herself immortal and return home, however, the faun instructs Ofelia to complete three tasks before the full moon. The first job Ofelia has is to remove a key from the belly of a giant toad and she is able to do so without much difficulty. Unfortunately, the second test does not occur as smoothly, despite the assistance from three of the faun’s fairies. Although Ofelia successfully obtains the dagger she was meant to locate, she disobeys the faun’s order to not eat any food from a nearby feast. This violation awakens the Pale Man, a child-eating monster who silently guards the banquet, and the struggle ends with two of the three fairies killed and a very upset faun refusing to give Ofelia the final task. Matters take a turn for the worst as Carmen goes into early labor and dies giving birth to a son. The faun decides to give Ofelia one last chance at obtaining immortality and requests her to take her baby brother to the labyrinth. Once there, the faun tells Ofelia that the portal to the underworld can only be opened by the blood of the innocent, implying that the brother must be sacrificed. At this point, Captain Vidal, who had followed Ofelia into the maze, lunges at Ofelia, takes the baby from her, and shoots her with his gun. By an ironic twist of fate, as the Captain leaves the maze, he is confronted by the rebels and Mercedes, who take the child into their protection and kill the Captain immediately. Back inside the labyrinth, Ofelia is dying; her blood drips into the portal and she is transported into a vast, golden room. The Faun and her parents are waiting for her, where they divulge that the final task was one of selflessness; Ofelia sacrificed herself to save her brother. The scene returns to the labyrinth, where Mercedes holds Ofelia’s dead body and the narrator concludes that Princess Moanna went on to rule the underworld with poise and grace.
A courageous and imaginative young girl, Ofelia’s love of books is an essential aspect of the narrative because it feeds her curiosity towards the Faun’s story that she is the underworld’s lost princess. She values other’s life over her success, a trait which functions to win her entry into the underworld through the sacrifice of herself rather than her brother. In general, her kind-hearted and innocent personality serves to connect the viewers emotionally with Ofelia as the protagonist.
The Captain is a sadistic man who fits every facet of the ultimate antagonist: cruel, unloving, and blood-thirsty. Completely opposite of Ofelia’s values, the Captain idolizes punctuality, order, and power above anything else. He has no regard for human life and his arrogant nature was one of his downfalls; Mercedes was able to spy for the rebels without the Captain suspecting that she, a woman and a servant, could be capable of anything complex, nonetheless underhanded.
A former friend of Princess Moanna, the Faun serves as a mentor-figure for Ofelia; he convinces Ofelia that she is the lost princess, encourages her through the tasks, and even procures a magical plant, the mandrake root, to heal her mother. He values obedience, apparent by his anger when Ofelia disobeys him, and loyalty, evident in the fact that he wishes for Ofelia to return to her family in the underworld. His quirky looks and personality, however, provide a bit of uncertainty whether he is good or evil; the viewers’ skepticism weaves yet another complex issue within the film’s fabric.
The character of Mercedes is extremely compassionate and cares enough for her brother and the rebel cause that she is willing to risk her own life by spying on the Captain. It is clear that she has a morally sound conscience, given that several times throughout the film, Mercedes chastises herself for serving the Captain at all.
Although not a central character in the film in terms of appearance, Carmen’s marriage to Captain Vidal is the basis for a large portion of the plot, which solidifies her as an essential component to the film. Her decision to wed the Captain reflects both her dependent and all-obeying nature and exemplifies her value of protection. Carmen’s intention was to provide a comfortable lifestyle for Ofelia and herself, however, by marrying the Captain, she forsake her health, life, and relationship with her daughter.
The presence of diegetic sounds within El laberinto del fauno are used to differentiate between the mythical world and reality. Whenever Ofelia is in contact with magical elements, the sounds are either higher pitched, such as the voices of the fairies, or softer, such as the sound of the hour glass during Ofelia’s second task, to convey other-worldliness. On the other hand, the noises in reality are harsher; the clamor of the military encampment, sounds of the Captain shaving or fixing his clock, and gunfire during the guerilla attacks all lend a hand to the intense atmosphere. Especially significant are the diegetic sounds during the gory scenes; a squeamish viewer could avert their eyes from the screen and still become nauseous from the sound of flesh ripping or people gasping in pain, for example.
Going hand-in-hand with the tension supplied from the diegetic sounds is the background music and narration used within the film. For example, the scene in which the Pale Man awakens and chases Ofelia involves a combination of woodwinds and strings playing allegro, or fast, in minor chord to complement the high-stress situation. Also during the second task, Ofelia looks up at the ceiling of the Pale Man’s lair to find pictures of children being massacred and eaten. During this moment, the non-diegetic sound of screaming children occurs to intensify the eeriness of Ofelia’s surroundings. Other instances of mood music include Ofelia meeting the Faun for the first time; as she walks down the circular staircase within the labyrinth, a chorus of strings match Ofelia’s curiosity while the harpsichord adds to the magical feel of the maze. The narration during the beginning and end of the film is tremendously important as it serves to inform the viewers of Princess Moanna’s tale. Moreover, the presence of narration shortens the film; the brief introduction and conclusion is necessary to keep the viewers’ attention.
For a fantasy and drama movie, Pan’s Labyrinth provides quite a large range of emotion, with sadness and anger perhaps being the dominant emotions. Sadness lingers for most of the film because Ofelia’s mother places her daughter second in important to the Captain; Carmen is so desperate to please her husband that she puts down Ofelia, her love of books, and her imagination. Despite this flaw that Carmen has, Ofelia nevertheless is close to her; thus one extremely heart wrenching moment is when Ofelia’s mother dies during childbirth, leaving Ofelia more alone than ever. Anger is experienced frequently as well; particularly whenever Captain Vidal shows his true heartless and sadistic colors. Intertwined emotions include both disgust and horror; for example the scene in which the Captain smashes the peasant’s face with a bottle is horribly gruesome and the Captain’s lack of remorse afterwards incites fury and bewilderment. Negative emotions are not the only feelings conjured, however. Pride is also felt, such as moments of success for Mercedes or the rebel army. A specific instance involving Mercedes occurs when the Captain is about to torture her and, from having hid a knife in her skirt, Mercedes stabs him repeatedly and is able to escape. Although mortal Ofelia dies at the end of the film, it is also during this scene that happiness is experienced; Mercedes rejoins her brother and the other rebels, Captain Vidal gets the death he deserves, and Princess Moanna is finally reunited with her parents in the underworld.
One of the most noticeable themes in the movie is time. The Captain in particular values regularity and timekeeping; this is portrayed by scenes of him checking his pocket watch impatiently and fixing the watch’s screws at night. Other scenes where time comes into play includes the Captain’s dinner party to which Ofelia is late and the presence of the hourglass during Ofelia’s second task. Disobedience also can be considered a theme throughout the film, reflected also by the dinner party incident and the Faun’s strict orders which Ofelia did not follow. Ofelia’s noncompliance is hugely important to the final task of immortality; the Faun orders her to sacrifice her brother but, because she refuses, Ofelia passes the test. In this way, control can also be viewed as one of the major themes. The Falange regime, based on fascist ideology, deals heavily with authoritarian regulation. On a smaller scale, Captain Vidal also shows a need for control; over his life, his wife, the rebels, and his troops. Finally, on the lowest level, Ofelia’s imagination and preoccupation with books is her escape from reality; the only way she is able to control her own life. In concern to the colors used throughout the film, greens and dark shades are the most prevalent; the former color is used to portray an earthy feel and the latter to embody the film’s overall mood and fit the genre of war and drama.
Personally, I found the ending scene to be the most powerful moment of the film. This finale spurred a wide influx of emotions; from sadness and joy to hatred and pity. Ofelia’s refusal to forsake her brother was invigorating; she would rather continue living a mortal life as an orphan than give up the baby in order to open the underworld portal. This brief spurt of admiration towards Ofelia is cut short when a sedated Captain Vidal stumbles in, steals the baby from Ofelia, and shoots her in the abdomen. The anger I felt towards the Captain was slightly assuaged via the poetic justice of Mercedes and the rebels cornering and killing him. Although he was a fundamentally corrupt person, I felt myself pitying him; not in the sense that his life should have been spared, but rather because he was so morally twisted that nothing could ever change him. These two consecutive deaths provoked a wave of desolation and emptiness. Alas the movie concludes, surprisingly, on an uplifting note; Ofelia, now Princess Moanna once more, is reunited with her father and mother. This unforeseen ending, combined with the about-face of emotions, are what solidify the scene as my favorite within the movie.
The most apparent Spanish cultural indicator in El laberinto del fauno is the setting of fascism, which took roots after the Spanish Civil War. Captain Vidal, a follower of Francisco Franco’s ideology, is tasked with systematically tracking down and killing the Spanish republican rebels who have been leading guerilla attacks on Falangist military units. In terms of cross cultural references, most cultures find it acceptable for a widow, such as Carmen, to remarry. Moreover, a husband in the military will be stationed with his family; this occurrence is not reserved for the Spanish military alone. More specifically, however, is the presence of an underworld and the Faun which allude to roots of Greek mythology.
All in all, despite the occasional gore and sadness, I thoroughly enjoyed El laberinto del fauno. Because the film was so thought provoking, however, I was left with a few questions at the movie’s end. For example, I understand that the role of Ofelia was initially supposed to be cast to a girl of eight years old. My question to del Toro would be how much, if any, the screenplay had to change to accommodate an older girl. Another thought I had was why the setting of the movie was set for the time period shortly after the Spanish Civil War, and if del Toro had a different setting in mind at any point. Lastly, I would like to know whether Guillermo del Toro was pleased, indifferent, or disappointed with the reception of the film and box office success.
- Del Toro, G. (Director). (2006). Pan’s Labyrinth [Motion picture]. Spain: Estudios Picasso.
- Goldstein, S. (2007). 'Pan's Labyrinth': An Inquisition allegory for our times. The Jewish Journal. https://jewishjournal.com/old_stories/13406/
- González, L. E. (2009). The lure of fairy-tale monsters: Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Marvels & Tales, 23(1), 69-84.
- Harvard Film Archive. (2016, March 30). Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters [Exhibit]. https://harvardfilmarchive.org/programs/guillermo-del-toro-at-home-with-monsters
- Hill, L. (2018). Exploring Hispanic culture through Pan's Labyrinth. Teaching Tolerance. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/exploring-hispanic-culture-through-pans-labyrinth
- Hixson, J. (2008). The Return of the Real in Pan's Labyrinth. Film Quarterly, 61(3), 25-35.
- Horn, E. (2007). Children and the Spanish Civil War in Guillermo del Toro's El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan's Labyrinth. International Journal of Iberian Studies, 20(1), 33-47.
- Kozlovic, A. K. (2012). The Devil's Labyrinth: Gothic and Satanism in Guillermo del Toro's El laberinto del fauno/Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 24(3), 295-306.
- Labanyi, J. (2010). Memory and Modernity in Post-Civil War Spain: Narrating the Spanish Civil War in Guillermo del Toro's El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan's Labyrinth. In E. Willis & B. D. Jones (Eds.), A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American South (pp. 453-469). Wiley-Blackwell.
- Lunning, F. (2008). Animating the Labyrinth of Dreams: How Guillermo del Toro Makes Pan's Labyrinth a Film about Fantasy. Film Criticism, 33(1), 23-46.