Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 triumph is set in post-Civil War Spain. We follow the story of Ofelia, a young girl whose mother, Carmen, has married Vidal, a fascist commander. The village they move to is an outpost where Vidal is positioned to hunt Spanish guerrilla rebels.
However, before any of this, we are introduced to Princess Moanna, the fairytale daughter of the King of the Underworld. She steps into the human realm and loses her memories and her immortality. This is one of many stories that Ofelia has grown up with and seems to love. Soon after moving in, Ofelia encounters a fairy, which leads her to the Faun. The Faun tells her that she is the reincarnation of Princess Moanna and tells her that she must perform three tasks to regain her immortality.
So begins Pan’s Labyrinth, a story that swirls and spirals between disturbing reality and dark fantasy. The animation of del Toro’s monsters is something he is well-known for, and the monsters of Pan’s Labyrinth are no exception. All are fairytale creatures, but each is given a nightmarish design that turns them from childlike wonders into demonic figures. Couple this with the grim realities of guerrilla warfare in 1944 Spain, and we get a really interesting interplay between two very different worlds with very different rules.
The first time I watched this film, I thought that the most important thing was what we choose to believe about the ending. It ends in one of two ways: either we believe that Ofelia returns to her fairytale as the Princess, or we believe that she simply dies a bloody death in the rain. Ever the optimist, I chose to believe the first and let the question of the second outcome remain merely an uncomfortable possibility in my mind.
Having returned to Pan’s Labyrinth, I now feel it is less about the differences between these possible outcomes and more about the lengths to which we will go to cope with devastating circumstances. I suppose in keeping with the theme of this blog, it is about how stories can help us escape from the awful situations we might find ourselves in, and return to them better prepared. At one point in the film, Ofelia escapes into her story and brings back a mandrake root, which helps soothe her mother through her difficult pregnancy. While this is a literal, tangible thing she brings back from the story, it nevertheless reminds us that stories aren’t just empty words that waste our time; they are our armouries against the forces that stand against us.
And where escaping is necessary, Pan’s Labyrinth also reminds us of the need to recognise the differences between stories and reality. Ultimately, Ofelia’s choice between saving her baby brother’s life, or sacrificing him for her kingdom, shows us that sometimes the story is wrong, or deceitful. Despite the cost of her life, we cheer for Ofelia’s decision, we love her for not abandoning her humanity in the pursuit of immortality. Is she rewarded for her moral choice, or is she hallucinating in a way that allows her to cope with her impending death? I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s important either.
I think the question at the end forces us to accept that sometimes good deeds go unrewarded. Sometimes good deeds are met with terrible punishment. But that shouldn’t make us question the value of performing a good deed, of sacrificing our own gain for the sake of others.