In 1944 fascist Spain, a girl, fascinated with fairy-tales, is sent along with her pregnant mother to live with her new stepfather, a ruthless captain of the Spanish army. During the night, she meets a fairy who takes her to an old faun in the center of the labyrinth. He tells her she’s a princess, but must prove her royalty by surviving three gruesome tasks. If she fails, she will never prove herself to be the the true princess and will never see her real father, the king, again. ~Tim at Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com)
El laberinto del fauno is an incredibly beautiful film written, directed, and produced by Mexican Film-maker Guillermo del Toro. My husband and I saw it in the theater (with subtitles) when it was released, and we knew we would own it. Despite my immediate love for the film, it also terrified me. My tolerance for things that spin, swing, or scare decreases every year. I give myself a couple years before I will have to paint my room in rainbows and lie still looking at them. I watched El laberinto del fauno once when we were able to own it (I think), but that was a long time ago. The other evening was well past time for another viewing.
El laberinto del fauno is not billed as a horror film. IMDb would categorize it as a Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, and/or War Film. The most simple answer is that the film is a Dark Adult Fairy Tale. The film is Dark, and though the protagonist is 11, this fairytale is not for children. And yet, the brutality of both the real and fairytale are not outside the purview of children—traditionally.
As gruesome and brutal as it is enchanting and spellbinding, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a movie intended for adults, not children, as its “R” rating indicates. Some kids under 17 will find it fascinating (especially if they know Spanish or don’t mind reading subtitles), but it’s a harsh and uncompromising film. ~Roger Ebert*
I closed my eyes or looked away more than once. And once I needed to cover my ears and hum (the bottle to face scene).
Del Toro is known for his creatures, his fantastical imagination and equally brilliant way of bringing them to life. A partner in crime to this venture is Doug Jones who plays Faun and Pale Man. Faun is rendered with this incredible body that looks carved from wood; better is that is snaps and creaks. His presence is heavy with portent and surfaces in and out of the background. Pale Man is flat out horror. For her second task, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) ascends through a door into a grand hall and passes a table laden with a sumptuous feast. At the head of the table is this hideous eye-less creature, waiting, unmoving. Behind him and up along the wall are paintings of his consumption of children…
The clicking of his nails. Ofelia’s panted breath. While the music is lovely and atmospheric, it does not seek to dominate the sounds of clicks and skitters of the mantis/fairy, or the often heard breaths of Ofelia in panic, among other effects. The sound crew did marvelous work.
For all the monstrous creatures emerging from the fairytale, the most terrible creature is Capitán Vidal. It takes work to be scarier than Pale Man, but Sergi López succeeds. He is handsome, strong, moderate features, cut jaw. He is rigid and unsmiling. There is a touch of insanity present. And there is really no limit to his evil. He is unrelenting in his mission: to purify Spain, and have a son to carry on his familial legacy/name.
El laberinto del fauno is visually stunning. The cast of faces are entrancing. And the setting is equally compelling. The old mill is incredible, blues and grays. The labyrinth suggestively worn and haunted. The woods form their own labyrinthine structure, hiding away the Spanish guerrilla anarchists. The setting is saturated with the mood of Tales, and Ofelia’s tasks explore all three spaces: the wood, the Mill, and the Labyrinth. The narrative alternates between the worlds, even as they evidently overlap.
Whether Ofelia actually sees Faun or not, is not clear (to every viewer). It would be plausible that Ofelia is using the Tale as a means of escape from her violent and hated surroundings; that she would seek a benevolent true Father over the tyrannical Stepfather. However, the Tale is not a thornless bouquet of roses. If it were too easy would that make it untrustworthy?—I don’t know. Just the same, both worlds hold an untoward level of violence. But only one offers choice; an attractive element for a powerless girl child; an attractive element for anyone made powerless by their government.
What [Faun] actually offers is not good or evil, but the choice between them, and Del Toro says in a commentary that Ofelia is “a girl who needs to disobey anything except her own soul.” The whole movie, he says, is about choices. ~Ebert **
The characters Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the Doctor (Álex Angulo) are, too, offered choices from a world other than that of The Mill’s. And they are burdened with their own tasks—equal to Ofelia’s own. It is that a choice does in fact exist for them that is made important in the film.
Capitán Vidal: You could have obeyed me!
Doctor: But captain, to obey – just like that – for obedience’s sake… without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.
Needless to say, the remark did not go unpunished, and in such a way that made Vidal look the coward. The ability to question is worth fighting for.
(left) Maribel Verdú as Mercedes
What I noticed and enjoyed in watching the film this time were the parallels drawn between Mercedes and Ofelia. Their tasks were similar; have the key, deliver aide, keep clear of the monsters. Both had brothers…[didn’t take notes, was too busy gripping the husband’s hand and arm to bother with a pen.]
What is easily caught in first viewing is that Ofelia’s mother, Carmen, is representative of the women’s role in the new Spain: looking beautiful, remaining silent, and bearing sons. Mercedes is the alternate version offered via resistance, a version that appeals to Ofelia independent-mind. Both Carmen and Mercedes are admittedly afraid—and not completely certain of what they are doing (whether it is right or not). Ofelia weighs them both, as she weighs both worlds (real and Tale) judiciously, though not without desperation. But there is more than just mere Survival to answer to. Ofelia is “a girl who needs to disobey anything except her own soul.”
“Del Toro talks of the “rule of three” in fables (three doors, three rules, three fairies, three thrones)” (Ebert**). There are the three main characters whose point-of-view we are offered throughout: Ofelia, Mercedes, and Vidal. I am unfamiliar with the rule: but the threes are apparent.There is also the echo of objects: keys, time keepers, knives, hidden doors, dens. The story behind each, person or object, is drawn into comparison and contrast.
While enchanted with El laberinto del fauno upon first viewing. I couldn’t help but be a bit baffled by the story. In part, this is due to my ignorance of events following the Spanish Civil War. Most of anything I know is from Italo Calvino texts and the University Course I took on him. I had wondered why that place and time. Still wondered this last time. I could get the parallels between the fighters in the woods’ resistance to ceasing to exist, and Faun’s desire avoid oblivion as well.
Faun: The moon will be full in three days. Your spirit shall forever remain among the humans. You shall age like them, you shall die like them, and all memory of you shall fade in time. And we’ll vanish along with it. You will never see us again.
Mercedes and Ofelia are pivotal to the survival of each. I find it lovely that both represent realms of free-thought, a return to a more Natural, Original State—or at least one that would me more fitting.
I had expected that the film would follow closer to this description (as borrowed from IMDb’s page): “In the fascist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.” The escape it talks about is misleading (though I am sure necessarily). I thought the Tale would be escapist, not tormenting—and certainly without its level of sacrifice. [How easily do I forget the good traditional fairly tale.]
I like Ebert’s reading of the film:
Ofelia’s challenges do not arise like arbitrary plot obstacles; they are organic to her (and the movie’s) development. The girl learns not only to follow instructions, and that there are heavy prices to pay for failing to abide by them, but also to trust her own instincts about right and wrong. In order to find her true self, she must also find the strength to break the rules imposed by authority.
An individual conscience: What could be a more powerful anti-fascist weapon than that?*
What makes Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” so powerful, I think, is that it brings together two kinds of material, obviously not compatible, and insists on playing true to both, right to the end. Because there is no compromise there is no escape route, and the dangers in each world are always present in the other. **
While Ofelia often resembles Alice from Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), she does not disappear into the other realm for her adventure. The parallels are much more intimate. Indeed, the future for Ofelia (in the Underworld), Vidal (a pure Spain), and Mercedes (a freed Spain) is yet in the offing—are in Limbo, as yet undecided. They are still battling it out in a same place/plane, fighting for their way of life, and there is a race against time. It could go any way.
At the end, Ofelia’s is the path still lingering in indecision, as the viewer has to decide whether Faun’s world existed. Had Ofelia taken her story too far? It seems that a story was indeed plotted—the stone image in the Labyrinth of Faun, Moanna/Ofelia, and the baby; the baby Faun wouldn’t address when asked. What about the Underworld parents’ likeness?
A.O. Scott writes,
That realm, in which Ofelia is thought to be a long-lost princess, may exist only in her imagination. Or maybe not: its ambiguous status is crucial to the film’s coherence. Like the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Mr. Del Toro is less interested in debunking or explaining away the existence of magic than in surveying the natural history of enchantment.***
Whether the magical realm was real or not, during the film I didn’t want it to disappear. I felt for Faun’s cause. “We’ll vanish […] You will never see us again.” Carmen and Mercedes were both lost to their childhood and magical places; though Carmen begged for Ofelia to come to the realization much more quickly. Those were painful scenes. Carmen felt abandoned by such realms (you get to feeling by both faeries and God) but she was helped by the strange Mandrake Root. Magic keeps company with nature (the fig tree). Tales comfort the child, Ofelia—at the very least via information; answers to Life Questions.
Fairy tales (and scary movies) are designed to console as well as terrify. What distinguishes “Pan’s Labyrinth,” what makes it art, is that it balances its own magical thinking with the knowledge that not everyone lives happily ever after. ~Scott***
Not everyone lives happily ever after. El laberinto del fauno has a difficult ending.
The story has two endings, two final images that linger in haunting, unresolved tension. Here is a princess, smilingly restored to her throne, bathed in golden subterranean light. And here is a grown woman weeping inconsolably in the hard blue twilight of a world beyond the reach of fantasy. ~Scott
Sean is fairly convinced by the second image. He argues the sequence. As do I. Ofelia’s smile and last breath after the reunion at court. 1- Is she escaping, finally, into a sublime image, into consolation. Purgatory decided? 2- Or is the choice to place the death image after the reunion to complete the framing of the Film? 3- How much does this matter?
That “unresolved tension” is difficult. It is hard to feel the Hope that the reunion scene would offer. It could almost make the viewer even more mournful—as inconsolable as Mercedes.
Ofelia: Mercedes, do you believe in fairies?
Mercedes: No. But when I was a little girl, I did. I believed in a lot of things I don’t believe anymore.
Ofelia: Last night a fairy visited me.
Mercedes does not deny their existence. She is of a similar quandary as many members of El laberinto del fauno’s audience. Things may exist for others, but they no longer exist for me.
The ending narration speaks to Legacy and Immortality. It is a reminder as to how Immortality is won through Legacy, and through Story. It reminds me of Vidal’s pocket watch and the story of his father. It reminds me of the story Ofelia tells her unborn sibling:
Many, many years ago in a sad, faraway land, there was an enormous mountain made of rough, black stone. At sunset, on top of that mountain, a magic rose blossomed every night that made whoever plucked it immortal. But no one dared go near it because its thorns were full of poison.
Men talked amongst themselves about their fear of death, and pain, but never about the promise of eternal life. And every day, the rose wilted, unable to bequeath its gift to anyone… forgotten and lost at the top of that cold, dark mountain, forever alone, until the end of time.
Ofelia, Mercedes, and Vidal ruminate on the fear of death, and pain, and about the promise of eternal life—in one fashion or the other. And del Toro would not “forget them, nor lose them;” and neither shall I.
please note: El laberinto del fauno is in Spanish. The use of Subtitles would be best (if you can find dubbed, don’t). Also, del Toro did the translation, wrote the subtitles; so as to avoid the gross errors with a previous film El espinazo del diablo (Devil’s Backbone, 2001); This film is considered a “spiritual sequel” to El espinazo del diablo (per wiki).
or in U.S. release Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Producers: Guillermo del Toro; Alfonso Cuarón; Bertha Navarro; Frida Torresblanco; Alvaro Augustin
Written by Guillermo del Toro
Narrated by Pablo Adán
Starring: Ivana Baquero (Ofelia), Doug Jones (Faun, Pale Man) Sergi López (vidal), Maribel Verdú (Mercedes), Ariadna Gil (Carmen), Álex Angulo(Doctor)
Music by Javier Navarrete
Cinematography by Guillermo Navarro
Editing by Bernat Vilaplana
Studio: Tequila Gang; Estudios Picasso; Telecinco Cinema
Distributed: Warner Bros. (Spain); Picturehouse (US); New Line Cinema (Home Video)
*Roger Ebert Dec. 29, 2006 Review; **Roger Ebert Aug. 25, 2007 Review; ***A.O. Scott's NY Times Review