By Christopher Thompson
Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth operates on two levels at the same time. On the one hand it is the story of Ofelia, a lonely little girl in post-Civil War Spain, who has been carted off to a rural military outpost where the Spanish Maquis are waging guerilla warfare against her Falangist stepfather’s tiny garrison. On the other hand it is the story of the Princess Moanna- the very same girl- who must find her way back to her true home in the Underground Realm, the beautiful fairyland from which she is unknowingly exiled. A mysterious and more than a little sinister faun (the “Pan” of the title) guides young Ofelia through the tasks she must perform to prove that she really is the reincarnation of the lost Princess Moanna, and that her life in the human world has not rendered her unfit to return home.
Ofelia’s stepfather is a sadistic fascist, a war criminal and torturer who loves only the unborn son his ailing wife is carrying, and then only as a symbol of his own masculinity. Though unfailingly correct toward his wife in the old school sense, his coldness and distance toward her create an air of constant tension. His attitude toward Ofelia develops from disdainful to murderous as he discovers her sympathy for the Maquis, and her intentions of running away with his newborn son after the death of her mother.
The tasks set for Ofelia by the faun are classic fairy-tale tests, such as to obtain a key from the body of a giant toad, and a magical dagger from the lair of a child-eating ogre called the Pale Man. Ofelia fails this second test by violating a taboo, resulting in one of the most visually stunning sequences of the movie, as the Pale Man hunts Ofelia through the corridors of his lair, watching her through eyes in his hands. The task, the broken taboo and the child-eating ogre are all classic fairy-tale motifs, but what makes this scene so effective is its successful evocation of the feeling of a nightmare, of being chased through dark tunnels by a relentless monster. The effective use of modern special-effects technology is what makes this possible, creating the visual illusion that all these things are really happening, with no more suspension of disbelief required than the bare minimum.
Most directors telling such a story would have given us a fairyland of cloying sweetness and impossible innocence, but the perilous double nature of the traditional fairy realm is incarnated in the faun, a darkly powerful presence who evokes anything but trust. His final task for Ofelia is to steal her baby brother and bring him to the labyrinth, where he reveals that the only thing that will open the portal to the Underground Realm is to shed innocent blood. Ofelia’s final test is one of good versus evil, and she doesn’t know which of the two the faun actually serves.
The ability to see out of more than one set of eyes, to accept multiple interpretations of reality at the same time, is the heart of magic. Is the Underground Realm “real” or “imaginary”? Is Ofelia a sad and possibly delusional little girl, or a fairy-tale princess? Does she really return to the Underground Realm, or is her final vision of that magical place a mere hallucination?
All of these things are actually true at the same time, depending solely on your perspective and your worldview. Ofelia’s stepfather is a man who can only see one world. Ofelia can see two. Any interpretation of the final scene depends on how many worlds the viewer can see.
Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest
“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)