Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro
DP: Guillermo Navarro
Editor: Bernat Vilaplana
Score: Javier Navarrete
Producer: Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Bertha Navarro, Alvaro Augustin, Frida Torresblanco
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones
Distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 59 min.
Director Guillermo del Toro believes in two kinds of fairy tales. One he calls "pro-institution," or carrying morals commanding obedience and discouraging exploration. He calls the other kind anti-establishment. Pan's Labyrinth is a film about two people with relationships to moral narratives.
The film is set in mid-1940s Spain, a time after the Spanish Civil War during which Franco's regime was hunting republican guerrillas. Ofelia, a girl who loves fairy tales, is being taken by her mother to live with her new stepfather Captain Vidal, a militant Falangist.
Ofelia and Vidal have little to talk about. From their first meeting, they agree to resent each other in silence. This unspoken connection between them establishes them as adversaries, but it perhaps stems from the fact that, in a way, they're kindred spirits. Each of them lives with the influence of cultural narratives.
The opening shots of the film are of ruined buildings, an image the film frequently revisits. The title of Pan's Labyrinth refers to the worn stone structures that appear everywhere in the film, remnants of an old, nearly forgotten culture. This is the culture whose narratives Ofelia exposes herself to. Both this culture and the republican guerrillas are dwindling because of the encroaching influence of Franco's regime, but both persist underground (literally).
Ofelia's narratives are fairy tales, while Vidal's is a tale of personal values. His father was a commander who died in battle, and smashed his pocket watch so his son would know the exact time of his death. His culture is one that values sacrifice, but only as a way of showing that one is willing to surrender their identity to the prevailing ideology. His father failed to break the watch, and it still ticks. Throughout the film, he holds it to his ear in moments of self-contemplation. Its tick has become the countdown to his own death; his father's values persisted after death and came to supersede his own identity. Vidal is only ever referred to by his surname, the name of his father.
Vidal is unique among film villains; in many cases the villain is one who tries to force their own identity on others, but Vidal is one whose identity is slowly eroded over the course of the film. Instead of trying to force his identity on someone else, he tries to bring people into the influence of his identity-consuming cultural narratives.
Vidal's narratives are del Toro's bad, "pro-institution" fairy tales. Are Ofelia's narratives, then, "anti-establishment?" In a way they certainly are, since what they require of her are acts of rebellion against Vidal and her mother. However, they demand more of her than simple rebellion. Ofelia is challenged to respect people as independent figures, and therefore consider the impact of her rebellion.
Ofelia's ultimate goal is to free herself from Vidal. Her fantastical journey will take her to a new world, one under the authority of her true father. But even though the journey brings her to disobey Vidal and her mother, it also has rules. At one point, Ofelia encounters a beast that will attack her if she disobeys these rules; in this scene, the beast is shot specifically to recall Captain Vidal. Because of this, we understand Ofelia's urge to break the rules, but when she does, it's rebellion for rebellion's own sake. The beast is reminiscent of Captain Vidal, but it is not Captain Vidal; it has an individual identity of its own, and Ofelia faces the consequences for not acknowledging that.
Both Ofelia and Vidal face consequences for their actions, but Ofelia continues to get closer to her goal while Vidal only retreats further into himself, his body growing more and more damaged as his soul sheds whatever shreds of morality it had. While Vidal has only the single narrative of his father's sacrifice, the multiplicity of the narratives Ofelia consumes makes her more pragmatic.
Del Toro, famous for his monster designs, has brought Ofelia's stories to life better than maybe any other contemporary director could. The film primarily uses practical effects, and the result is that the creatures Ofelia confronts in the film have a weighty presence. As vehicles of horror, they are capable of creating remarkable tension despite del Toro's denial of the traditional rule of "don't show the monster." They feel like they're actually present in the frame because they are.
There is a story of republican guerrillas in the film that runs parallel to Ofelia's, and one might argue that they don't really necessitate each other. However, each shows us different things about the state of post-Civil War Spain. We see the guerrillas at their most vulnerable, afraid and injured. By showing them in this state in parallel with Ofelia's fantastical journey of narratives and ideals, del Toro is able to vividly illustrate the harshness of their struggle while also magnifying the ideals they stood for.
Pan's Labyrinth's ending is simple, but brilliant. With the rest of the film behind it, it shows us that in a culture that respects human life and identity, sacrifice is valued, but always lamented. It is the perfect counter to Vidal's ideals, and also the perfect affirmation of the film's own ideals.