Much can be said about religion without really saying it out loud. Such is the case with Pan’s Labyrinth, which is not a religious movie yet still a movie on religion. Apart from being a beautiful movie, it contains religious themes that do not intrude on the experience at all: a rare thing. If you haven’t seen it, do so, preferably without reading my analysis, which out of necessity must reveal some of the plot.
Pan’s Labyrinth begins with the arrival of twelve-year-old Ofelia and her mother at the camp of Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s mother Carmen’s new husband. We’re in Spain, 1944, and Franco and his fascists have won the Civil War. Carmen is pregnant, while Ofelia retreats into fairy tales.
Captain Vidal, as it turns out, puts his ideals above all else, or else he’s just a plain sadist, effectually illustrated in a scene where a father and a son, suspected to be rebels, are captured in the woods at night. The father claims they’re hunting rabbits. The son says that if his father says so, it must be true. Vidal responds by crushing the face of the son, and when the father complains, he kills him too. Then they open the bag the two men had with them, and find a dead rabbit.
As you can gather, Pan’s Labyrinth is not a fairytale for children.
Ofelia, who believes in the fairytales she reads in her books, is visited one night by a fairy, who leads her into a labyrinth in the woods. There, she meets a faun. In the English title, he’s named Pan, after the Greek god. Even though Guillermo del Toro, the director, has said that the faun isn’t meant to be Pan, the analogy is apt. You can already read some religious commentary into the story: Pan’s appearance, part goat, may very well have inspired the Christian conception of Satan.
You see, Pan’s Labyrinth really starts with a kind of prologue, a fairy tale Ofelia reads in the car that takes her with her mother out to Vidal’s lair in the woods. The fairytale takes place in the Underworld, where people are immortal and there is no suffering. This can obviously be taken as an analogy for the afterlife or Paradise. Princess Moanna, however, is not satisfied with her life in paradise; she becomes curious about the over-world, sneaks out and, abandoning the underworld and immortality, dies. Kind of a reference to the Judeo-Christian Fall, if you like. But her soul lives on. And that soul, says the faun, is Ofelia.
She will return to the underworld, but she must first complete three tasks before Full Moon, to prove that her soul has not been tainted and become mortal. The faun gives Ofelia a book that will tell her what she must do, and instructs her to read it alone.
You can see lots of religious themes here: there’s the underworld, a world free of mortality and suffering; yet the people there are not satisfied, or Moanna/Ofelia wouldn’t have left in the first place. She sneaks out of the underworld because she’s curious: this curiousity is mirrored in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, where the forbidden fruit brings knowledge. Ignorance is bliss, indeed.
Parallel to the fantasy, there’s gritty reality. Vidal tortures for the sake of the cause, fascism. “Remember, we are not here willingly,” says one character at a dinner in the house at Vidal’s lair. That’s wrong, says Vidal. The rebels are wrong in thinking we are all equals, he says, because we are the winners and they lost. Spain must be pure, and if that required killing every single rebel, that is what Vidal intends to do. Therefore, they are there willingly.
Ofelia gets to know Mercedes, the housekeeper-boss-type at Vidal’s lair. As it turns out, her brother is in the resistance, and she, too, fights Vidal and the fascists by leaking information, supplying the rebels and so on. Her accomplice is Vidal’s Doctor, who’s tasked with making sure Carmen, Ofelia’s pregnant mother and Vidal’s wife, lives to deliver her baby; the pregnancy has caused illness. But make no mistake, Vidal is not overly sentimental: if it comes to it, he instructs the doctor, choose the boy (for Vidal is certain the child is a boy) before the mother.
Guillermo de Torro was asked to direct the Narnia movie, but turned it down, instead focusing on Pan’s Labyrinth. Where Narnia’s religious themes are obvious and intruding, Pan’s Labyrinth, in my opinion, does not stoop to this level. The moral and religious symbolism is there and integral to the whole yet doesn’t distract from the rest of it, and you can watch Pan’s Labyrinth as a straightforward portrayal of the Spanish Civil War or as a straightforward fantasy in line with Alice in Wonderland, and in both instances get something from it without having to deal with the symbolism that underlies it.
Ofelia’s first task isn’t very interesting, but the second has more action and deeper symbolism. She is instructed to obtain a dagger from the lair of the Pale Man, a creature without eyes in the face, pale as described, with his eyes lying in front of his hands, sitting motionless in front of a large feast. Again we can, if we want to, choose either to see the scene as straightforward fantasy/action or as deeper symbolism. The faun instructs Ofelia not to eat anything at the feast. This is temptation again, obviously. She doesn’t resist, but succumbs to some urge and eats some grapes. This, of course, awakens the Pale Man, who eats two of the fairies, then chases her. She escapes narrowly from his cave, which is decorated with pictures of the Pale Man sending people to Hell, but when the faun hears of her disobedience he refuses to help her or even let her do the final task.
If you’d like to, you can even read into the movie a commentary on the whole divide between fantasy and science, the real and the unreal. The faun gives Ofelia a mandrake root to put under her mother’s sickbed. When she does this, her mother’s state miraculously betters. But Vidal discovers the plant and demands to know what it is. Carmen takes it, and when Ofelia says it’s a magic plant she got from a faun, her mother throws it to the fire and screams, “There is no magic! Not for you, not for me, not for anyone! When you grow older you’ll see!” The semi-conscious plant writhes in agony in the fire, screams and squeals, then dies. With its death, Ofelia’s mother gets contractions, and soon Carmen is dead, her last act in life being delivering her baby. Rationalism has won over irrational superstition, and in so doing, has killed Ofelia’s mother.
Later, the faun agrees to let Ofelia have a second chance. The final task, which she must promise to obey without questions, is to bring her baby brother, just delivered into this world when his mother dies, to the titular labyrinth.
Meanwhile, Vidal is busy interrogating Mercedes; finally, after capturing one of the rebels, he has gathered that there is a leak, a spy, and identified her. But Mercedes is not, as in many a religious story, a weak woman. She severs Vidal with a knife and runs away to the woods. She is soon surrounded by Vidal’s riders, but her brother and the rest of the rebels
come in time to save her.
The injured Vidal, upon discovering Ofelia with his child, his son, the one that’s supposed to grow up in a pure España, chases her to the Labyrinth. This provides the climax. The faun has the dagger Ofelia got from the Pale Man in his hand and demands her brother. Blood from an innocent is the final task. But Ofelia would rather give up immortality than spill her innocent brother’s blood. So the faun retreats, and Vidal arrives to take her brother and shoot her.
But in forsaking Paradise, in denying to pay the price for eternal life, she has gained it; she’s suddenly in her father’s palace, and the faun tells her that this was the most important task, one that she by failing fulfilled. But Ofelia is dead, yet immortal; or is she just dead, dying with an irrational belief that is really untrue? We can speculate.
I’m not sure I agree with all the film says, or perhaps (probably) it can be interpreted in many different ways, but whatever I think of it, I cannot deny its beauty. The movie is gorgeous; the Academy Award for best cinematography is well earned.
There’s not much new in way of either plot or symbolics. The fantasy part is straightforward, the kind of story I would be immediately turned off by if it were a novel in the store. The Civil War story, too, is not particularly original. But the film succeeds in combining them, in executing the old in a new, near-perfect way. The cinematography is beautiful, the characters are good, the plot coherent, the symbolics rich, as seen by my attempts to interpret them in this review.
So, in summary, watch this movie. It can be seen if you want to analyze it to death, just enjoy it or immerse yourself in it. The symbolic meanings don’t get in the way. To speak the truth, I don’t normally interpret movies this heavily. Therein lies the beauty: in writing this review from a perspective appropriate for de-Conversion, I’ve only given it one spin; another viewer could give it quite another, and both would be equally correct or incorrect.
Or, as I’ve said, you could watch it just for the entertainment.
(originally published on 29 Aug 2007)