Pan’s Labyrinth: A Decade of Fairy Tales & Fascism
It's 10 years since the release of Guillermo del Toro's compelling and deeply involving masterpiece. This terrifying and visually wondrous fairy tale for adults blends fantasy and dark drama into one of the most magical films that is still as refreshingly different today as it was back in 2006.
A celebrate this cinematic classic I share here with you a great article by Gary Shannon from TheYoungFolks.com and for you movie geeks, 15 things you may or may not know about Pan's Labyrinth.
Pan’s Labyrinth opens with a shot moving in a reverse: It’s night and a young girl lies on the floor as blood streaming from her nose begins to shrink back in. It’s striking, haunting, horrifying and tragic, when you see it for the first time you’re not completely sure what to make of it, or at least not yet. The young girl is Ofelia and director Guillermo del Toro indicates something crucial about her character. Ofelia is dying, but just as the light in her eyes begin to fade the camera zooms into their overwhelming blackness. From there we see, at a distance, a similar girl running through a vast array of ancient cloisters and spires. A narrator describes the scene but the image alone tells us all: A princess is trying to escape her kingdom of darkness, and as she ascends a spiral staircase her world becomes brighter. As she reaches the top of the staircase a bright flash overpowers her and, as the narrator describes, the princess is consumed by the sunlight and becomes a mortal.
In the next shot we see Spain in 1944. Pan’s Labyrinth takes place after the Spanish Civil War, just as dictator Francisco Franco ascends to power and, for over the next 30 years, becomes one of the country’s most maligned rulers. In a considerably less abstruse establishing shot we see a caravan of well heeled cars (for rich people), inside one of them is Ofelia, an inspirited young girl, and her pregnant mother. The two are traveling to meet Ofelia’s stepfather, Captain Vidal, the despotic head of a backwoods military compound. There he reigns over the area’s inhabitants with a rigid (and evil) authority indicating that he’s the compound’s veritable dictator. Guillermo del Toro’s world is oppressive, scary and real. So where does the fantasy come into play?
Ofelia is a bookworm who relishes in her space and freedom. So much so that when all the cars stop (to relieve her mother of a debilitating morning sickness) Ofelia veers from the caravan’s path. Deep in the woods she encounters a strange insect which, in fact, happens to be a fairy. One night the fairy visits Ofelia and, urging her to come with it, she follows it to a stone labyrinth hidden in the wooded outskirts of the compound. There she meets a weird being dubbed the Faun, he’s made of earthy skin, boasts a dubious affability and wears an off-putting, cat-like smile. The Faun’s words are elongated and grandiose, he lures Ofelia with the promise of riches of eternity inside a fairytale kingdom, and refers to her as its long lost princess who had run away from the kingdom. Ofelia, an idealist, accepts the Faun’s terms. To obtain her immortality Ofelia must complete 3 separate tasks, each one strange and terrifying. Guillermo del Toro’s world is magical, mysterious and make-believe. So where does the realism come into play?
Pan’s Labyrinth is a film of two vastly contrasting textual layouts. Since its release they’ve spawned several theories and perspectives of what the binary concept of fantasy & reality in the film actually means. A more pessimistic perspective assigns Pan’s Labyrinth two worlds as a eulogy on the power of escapism, how Ofelia’s entrenched journey through mystical realms are products of childish delusions created to help the girl come to grips with a harsher reality. Guillermo del Toro, however, despite encouraging people to make-up their own assumptions of the film, believes that the fairy tale kingdom in Pan’s Labyrinth was real. Which means it has to be, right? Since its release 10 years ago ideas have swelled into even more convoluted arguments, all of which are theoretical and, unfortunately irrelevant. Films, like Pan’s Labyrinth, can show us reality and fantasy, but neither description consigns the film to be either real or fake. As the fantasy novelist Lloyd Alexander is quoted to have said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”
Reading a good book, as Ofelia does, doesn’t offer any sort of escape from her stepfather’s reign of terror but broadens her mind to life’s endless possibilities, outside of consigned oppression, militaristic fascism and psychological totalitarianism. There is a character in Pan’s Labyrinth, Doctor Ferreiro, a physician and a pacifist, who secretly sympathizes with the rebels fighting Captain Vidal. He questions the Captain, something the Captain hates, and at times the Doctor even undermines him. The Doctor’s deciding moment comes in the form of an insult, aimed toward the Captain, which in essence reflects the film in its entirety: “But Captain, to obey, just like that, for obedience’s sake . . . without questioning . . . that’s something only people like you do.” Ofelia’s mother, on the other hand, acts as an antithesis to everything the Doctor stands for, the woman is confined to the security of her abusive husband’s autocracy. In a heartbreaking sequence the woman literally casting her life (manifesting as a mandrake root) into the fireplace and says to Ofelia, in a tragic rejection of life itself, “Magic does not exist. Not for you, me or anyone else.”
Then we have characters like Mercedes and Ofelia, two people who seem to exist on the polarizing center of obedient confinement and rebellious liberation. Both Mercedes and Ofelia seem to be the respective protagonists of their own stories. Mercedes is an insider for the rebel battalion her brother commands. She acts as a maid, working undercover to learn of Captain Vidal’s battle strategies, as well as smuggling things out of the compound to supply his men with food, medicine and other kinds of sustenance. Ofelia, on the other hand, seems cut-off from the conflict despite being very much in the midst of it. Her mind, instead, seems intent on completing her 3 tasks where she must remain unquestioningly obedient to the Faun’s stringent terms. We know where their hearts lie, Guillermo del Toro likes these characters, but their choices and actions are fraught with complex moral dilemmas. Not even the fairy tale aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth comes with easy answers . . .
In Pan’s Labyrinth’s climax we see Ofelia with her infant brother running toward the labyrinth. It’s in the midst of a decisive battle where the rebels begin outnumber the compound’s soldiers. Captain Vidal is hot on her trail, carrying in his hand a pistol. As Ofelia arrives to the labyrinth’s center the Faun is there to greet her. This time though he feels oddly unwelcoming, carrying the knife she obtained during her second task. The Faun presents her with a third task: To procure a small drop of blood from her brother. Ofelia backs away, hesitant to listen to the Faun, and outright refuses to harm her brother. By this point Vidal arrives, and much like the Faun, he too wants Ofelia’s brother. Vidal can’t see the Faun but sees Ofelia and her brother clearly. He delicately takes the brother from Ofelia’s arms and, with striking visual reserve, he shoots the girl.
Pan’s Labyrinth ends the same way it begins, but this time it’s not in reverse: It’s night and a young girl lies on the floor as blood streaming out of her nose. This time we know who she is. This time the moment, instead of being played for mystery, is played for a devastatingly tragic grandeur. Dying, Ofelia sees the kingdom she was promised. Is it a delusion? Did she pass the Faun’s test? We don’t completely know but it’s happy and resolute. Ofelia is congratulated by the Faun, but for what? She refused to complete the third task. Well, not exactly. The Faun reveals that by refusing to take the blood of the innocent and, ultimately, for thinking for herself she had won her reward. It’s almost too happy of an ending. The shot dissolves back to the dying Ofelia. What is del Toro saying about Ofelia, or the Spanish Civil War, or about people in general? In a satisfying closing note, Captain Vidal surrenders the son and dies at the hands of Mercedes and the remaining rebel battalion, but not before Mercedes shows one last act of defiance:
Vidal: “Tell my son the time that his father died. Tell him—”
Mercedes: “No. He won’t even know your name.”
In the world of fairies, fauns and eternity, Ofelia’s goodness earned her a happily ever after. In the world of dictators, wars and tragedies Ofelia’s goodness earned her a sad, lonely death. Whether Ofelia’s dying visions were illusory or real we can’t deny del Toro’s simple truths. Happy endings don’t exist in the real world, the good are punished and the wicked are rewarded. And like those who sought to liberate their country in the Spanish civil war Ofelia’s self-determinism came at the cost of her life. As she lays dying, Mercedes grieves over her lifeless body. A strange image follows, Ofelia smiles. Why? Because like the runaway princess in the opening Ofelia is too finally escaping her kingdom of darkness.
14 Fantastical Facts About 'Pan's Labyrinth'
Between his modest comic book hits Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, imaginative Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro made a film that was darker and more in Spanish: Pan's Labyrinth, a horror-tinged fairy tale set in 1944 Spain, under fascist rule. Like many of del Toro's films, it's a political allegory as well as a gothic fantasy. The heady mix of whimsy and violence wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but it won enough fans to make $83.25 million worldwide and receive six Oscar nominations (it won three). On the tenth anniversary of the film's release, here are some details to help you separate fantasy from reality the next time you take a walk in El Laberinto del Fauno.
1. IT'S A COMPANION PIECE TO THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE
Del Toro intended Pan's Labyrinth to be a thematic complement to The Devil's Backbone, his 2001 film set in Spain in 1939. The movies have a lot of similarities in their structure and setup, but del Toro says on the Pan's Labyrinth DVD commentary that the events of September 11, 2001—which occurred five months after The Devil's Backbone opened in Spain, and two months before it opened in the U.S.—changed his perspective. "The world changed," del Toro said. "Everything I had to say about brutality and innocence changed."
2. IT HAS A CHARLES DICKENS REFERENCE
When Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives at Captain Vidal's house, goes to shake his hand, and is gruffly told, "It's the other hand," that's a near-quotation from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, when the young lad of the title meets his mother's soon-to-be-husband. Davey's stepfather turns out to be a cruel man, too, just like Captain Vidal (Sergi López).
3. DUE TO A DROUGHT, THERE ARE VERY FEW ACTUAL FLAMES OR SPARKS IN THE MOVIE
The region of Segovia, Spain was experiencing its worst drought in 30 years when del Toro filmed his movie there, so his team had to get creative. For the shootout in the forest about 70 minutes into the movie, they put fake moss on everything to hide the brownness, and didn't use squibs (explosive blood packs) or gunfire because of the increased fire risk. In fact del Toro said that, except for the exploding truck in another scene, the film uses almost no real flames, sparks, or fires. Those elements were added digitally in post-production.4. IT CEMENTED DEL TORO'S HATRED OF HORSES.
The director is fond of all manner of strange, terrifying monsters, but real live horses? He hates 'em. "They are absolutely nasty motherf*ckers," he says on the DVD commentary. His antipathy toward our equine friends predated Pan's Labyrinth, but the particular horses he worked with here—ill-tempered and difficult, apparently—intensified those feelings. "I never liked horses," he says, "but after this, I hate them."
5. THE FAUN'S IMAGE IS INCORPORATED INTO THE ARCHITECTURE
If you look closely at the banister in the Captain's mansion, you'll see the Faun's head in the design. It's a subtle reinforcement of the idea that the fantasy world is bleeding into the real one.
6. IT MADE STEPHEN KING SQUIRM
Del Toro reports that he had the pleasure of sitting next to the esteemed horror novelist at a screening in New England, and that King squirmed mightily during the Pale Man scene. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life," del Toro said.
7. IT REFLECTS DEL TORO'S NEGATIVE FEELINGS TOWARD THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Del Toro told an interviewer that he was appalled by the Catholic church's complicity with fascism during the Spanish Civil War. He said the priest's comment at the banquet table, regarding the dead rebels—"God has already saved their souls; what happens to their bodies, well, it hardly matters to him"—was taken from a real speech that a priest used to give to rebel prisoners in the fascist camps. Furthermore, "the Pale Man represents the church for me," Del Toro said. "He represents fascism and the church eating the children when they have a perversely abundant banquet in front of them."
8. THERE'S A CORRECT ANSWER TO THE QUESTION OF WHETHER IT'S REAL OR ALL IN OFELIA'S HEAD
Del Toro has reiterated many times that while a story can mean different things to different people, "objectively, the way I structured it, there are clues that tell you ... that it's real." Specifically: the flower blooming on the dead tree at the end; the chalk ending up on Vidal's desk (as there's no way it could have gotten there); and Ofelia's escape through a dead end of the labyrinth.
9. THE PLOT WAS ORIGINALLY EVEN DARKER
In del Toro's first conception of the story, it was about a married pregnant woman who meets the Faun in the labyrinth, falls in love with him, and lets him sacrifice her baby on faith that she, the baby, and the Faun will all be together in the afterlife and the labyrinth will thrive again. "It was a shocking tale," Del Toro said.
10. THE SHAPES AND COLORS ARE THEMATICALLY RELEVANT
Del Toro points out in the DVD commentary that scenes with Ofelia tend to have circles and curves and use warm colors, while scenes with Vidal and the war have more straight lines and use cold colors. Over the course of the film, the two opposites gradually intrude on one another.
11. THAT VICIOUS BOTTLE ATTACK COMES FROM AN INCIDENT IN DEL TORO'S LIFE
Del Toro and a friend were once in a fight during which his friend was beaten in the face with a bottle, and the detail that stuck in the director's memory was that the bottle didn't break. That scene is also based on a real occurrence in Spain, when a fascist smashed a citizen's face with the butt of a pistol and took his groceries, all because the man didn't take off his hat.
12. DOUG JONES LEARNED SPANISH TO PLAY THE FAUN
The Indiana-born actor, best known for working under heavy prosthetics and makeup, had worked with del Toro on Hellboy and Mimic and was the director's first choice to play the Faun and the Pale Man. The only problem: Jones didn't speak Spanish. Del Toro said they could dub his voice, but Jones wanted to give a full performance. Then del Toro said he could learn his Spanish lines phonetically, but Jones thought that would be harder to memorize than the actual words. Fortunately, he had five hours in the makeup chair every day, giving him plenty of time to practice. And then? Turns out it still wasn't good enough. Del Toro replaced Jones's voice with that of a Spanish theater actor, who was able to make his delivery match Jones's facial expressions and lip movements.
13. NEVER MIND THE (ENGLISH) TITLE, THAT ISN'T PAN
The faun is a mythological creature, half man and half goat, who represents nature (it's where the word "fauna" comes from) and is neutral toward humans. Pan is a specific Greek god, also goat-like, who's generally depicted as mischievous, harmful, and overly sexual—not a creature you'd be comfortable seeing earn the trust of a little girl. In Spanish, the film is called El Laberinto del Fauno, which translates to The Faun's Labyrinth. "Pan" was used for English-speaking audiences because that figure is more familiar than the faun, but you'll notice he's never called Pan in the film itself. "If he was Pan, the girl would be in deep sh*t," del Toro told one interviewer.
14. DEL TORO WROTE THE ENGLISH SUBTITLES HIMSELF
After being disappointed by the way the translators handled The Devil's Backbone ("subtitles for the thinking impaired"), the Mexican filmmaker, who speaks fluent English, did the job himself for Pan's Labyrinth. "I took about a month with a friend and an assistant working on them, measuring them, so that it doesn't feel like you're watching a subtitled film," he said.