Before reading this article, have a look at what magic realism is here.
If you have not watched the film, read the synopsis here.
The film is set in the year 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. In Spain, Francisco Franco took over as the Fascist leader and created a “Francoist Spain”. The plot of Pan’s Labyrinth revolves around the adults who are actively involved in either supporting or rebelling against the regime. The only child in the movie introduces the magic realism aspect to the film through her perspective and her background. With grace and beauty, Guillermo del Toro creates a poignant story about courage, innocence and love, set in the two juxtaposing backgrounds of stark battlefields after the Spanish Civil War and the mystical realms of magical creatures. The protagonist Ofelia must conquer all odds of violence, death and disillusionment to protect herself from the harsh world and her adventure is a chronicle of self-discovery.
- Ofelia: Ofelia is a dreamy child who loves reading fairy tales and is often chided by her mother for doing so. She is the only one in the film with adventures into the world of fantasy and in the two times that adults were introduced to this magical realm, they were unable to see it. Ofelia is the epitome of courage and innocence in the film. She is the only one who has access to the world of fantasy and del Toro uses Ofelia’s adventures and perspectives to make comments on and to criticise fascist Spain.
- The Faun: This article chooses to refer to this creature as the Faun as calling it Pan anchors this creature in one particular mythological narrative: Greek mythology. The Faun is a combination of many more aspects, however, and does not belong to just one narrative. This creature is an amalgamation of many mythical characters and the writer and director of the film Guillermo del Toro confirms this by stating in an interview that he himself does not identify this creature as being Pan. However the title of the film in English uses the name Pan and it is easy translation. The Faun alternates between being a kindly figure and a suspiciously evil character through the movie, for no other reason than to provide doubt about his true intentions.
- Carmen: Ofelia’s mother Carmen is interesting in that the choices she makes are often terrible and in one instance, fatal. However, her choice of suffering is unknown to her and in each event, she believes that she is making the right decision. She chooses to marry Captain Vidal, she chooses to uproot Ofelia and herself into the countryside, she chooses to disbelieve her child and finally, in pain and anguish, she chooses to ignore any possibility of magic in the real world and throws the mandrake root in the fireplace. Unfortunately, this leads to her death.
- Captain Vidal: The Captain is the archetype of the evil adult, the one who’s only role in life is to torment and to kill. He represents two aspects. The first is the entire adult world, the world that has lost all innocence and sense of childlike wonder. He is also, more obviously, representative of cruelty and inhumanity in fascist Spain. In the dinner scene with the important guests from the town and in the other dimension with the pale, old man, the cruel member is seated at the head of the table. Captain Vidal is juxtaposed with the image of the pale, old man, representing fascist Spain. Also, Captain Vidal does not appreciate story tales. When Carmen tells the dinner guests about her meeting Captain Vidal, Vidal snaps at Carmen telling the guests at the table the she does not know the proper manner to talk. He only accepts a single telling of a story, a style that del Toro does not agree with.
- Mercedes: Mercedes’ role in the movie is to provide Ofelia with love, comfort and support. She is present when Carme is not and she behaves like the surrogate mother figure. She is shown to neither believe nor disbelieve in whatever Ofelia says and represents hope in the world. She is courageous and intelligent, qualities that lead her to survive in Vidal’s household.
Myth and Fairy Tale in the Story:
Del Toro’s movie presents many parallel narrations: reality and fantasy, cold adult world and warm childhood fantasies, the world of fairy tales and political revolution. These realms connect in the most beautiful sequences, for example when Ofelia is narrating a story to her baby brother in her mother’s womb. The setting of the entire movie is in and around the forest. Traditionally, in myth and fairy tale alike, the forest is where all the magic occurs. One rarely finds the magical within the city confines. Del Toro has combined many mythical narratives to create his characters. The Faun is an archetype about half-man, half-beast adopted from many myths. The most obvious one is from Greek mythology, where this creature is called Pan. Pan is the Greek god of nature and shepherds. Del Toro ties in this reference with his character when the Faun says “[…] only the wind and trees can pronounce. I am the mountain, the forest and the earth”.
The other magical creature in the film is the toad. The toad lives in the magical tree stump in the forest and is causing the tree stump to die. The toad represents the leaders of the fascist regime who have enough to eat themselves but starve the rest of the nation. In another scene in the film, Vidal’s soldiers have lined up the townspeople to give them their rations and he shouts out that no one will starve in Franco’s Spain. However, del Toro clearly criticises this idea as he shows that the townspeople actually receive very little to eat and food is strictly rationed. Before Ofelia defeats the toad, she shouts out, “Aren’t you ashamed living down here, eating all these bugs, and growing fat while the tree dies?” She voices del Toro’s opinion and the toad is defeated by its own gluttony.
The next magical creature encountered in this film is the more complicated and complex Pale Man, as he is called. He is actually an androgynous figure, more male than female, and is old and lifeless until Ofelia disobeys a direct order from the Faun. The pale, old man eats children and so the inspiration for his character may have come from either Greek or Roman mythology, in the figures of Chronos or Saturn respectively. The pale, old man has a banquet set out in front of him, juxtaposed with the banquet we see in the dinner scene at Vidal’s house; the upper classes will feast while the lower classes will suffer. The banquet represents all that the fascist regime hoped to entice youngsters with. Ofelia falls for this ruse and partakes of the banquet, if only for a little bit. This enrages the Faun as he is hoping Ofelia will be beyond all mortal pleasures and would not be swayed.
The fact that the pale, old man eats children could be loosely translated as the fact that many children die at war. However the imagery of the pile of dusty, black shoes in one corner of the room very clearly makes references to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. The pale, old man could also be representative of the powerful Christian religion and how religion and politics became an uncomfortable blend during fascist Spain. This is signified as the only thing that awakens the creature is when Ofelia eats the grapes on the table, grapes which have multiple meanings in the bible including being the source of wine which is God’s blood. Thus, in one fell swoop, del Toro critiques the fascist regime, the Holocaust and Christianity in this particular scene in the film.
Del Toro also makes references to other fairy tales such as those written by the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. He also makes references to Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland by employing the tropes about Ofelia having her adventures in underground areas, having reached there through the use of rabbit-hole like devices. The red shoes that Ofelia has on at the end can be representative of the red shoes that Dorothy has on at the end of Wizard of Oz.
The fairies in the movie are interesting creatures. While fairies are traditionally humanoid and female, much of the screen time dedicated to these fairies portrays them as insects. Del Toro subverts classical notions of fairies and creates an entirely new understanding. The fairies do eventually morph into a western understanding of what a fairy must look like after Ofelia shows them a book with drawing of a fairy. They become more palatable to the Western audience, raising themes of postcolonialism.
The ending of the movie is the most interesting part for it is the scene where fantasy and reality collide with the death of Ofelia. For example, Captain Vial is unable to see the Faun even though Ofelia is talking to it right in front of Vidal. This leaves the audience guessing about the verity of the Faun and whether it actually existed or if it deliberately hid itself from Captain Vidal. After Ofelia dies and is taken to the Underworld, she meets her mother from the other realm. This mother is her mother Carmen, again drawing questions about the verity of the child’s perspective. Essentially, it would seem that, in her last moments, Ofelia imagined a world that was grand and beautiful but the mother figure would always be her actual mother, Carmen. This highlights the mother-daughter bond that Carmen and Ofelia shared, irrespective of their rift upon arriving into the countryside.
The movie speaks of a certain innocence in all of the characters except for that of Captain Vidal. Even in death, Ofelia remains pure and hence she can return to the realm of the Underworld. The scenes where magic collides with the real world are all from the perspective of a child, indicating that either she has the power of imagination to concoct such a world or that, as a child, she is the only one deserving to see such a world.
The entire film hangs on the decisions and the disobedience of the characters. Carmen decided to move to the country to be with her new husband. The doctor, Mercedes and the rebels disobeyed Captain Vidal and the fascist state. The movie itself is an example of disobedience as it is a subversion of many fairy tales and myths. The director-script writer has disobeyed too as he has created a subverted fairy tale. The film is a wonderful example of the genre of magic realism as it constitutes of several fantasy elements, all used to critique and comment on the socio-political era of Franconian Spain. Del Toro masterfully combines fact with fiction to create a riveting piece of work.
Durix, Jean-Pierre. Mimesis, Genres and Post-Colonial Discourse: Deconstructing Magic Realism. New York: Macmillan St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Print.
Lowder, Rebecca, and Pearl Levy. “Exploring PAN’S LABYRINTH: A Movie Guide for 9th and 10th Grade Students.” Appalachian State University, Spring 2015. Web. <http://www.appstate.edu/~redmondta/Courses/Movie%20Guides%20SP%202015/RE_3070_Pans%20Labyrinth_Spring_2015.pdf>
Pan’s Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo Del Toro. 2006. Film.
“Pan’s Labyrinth.” (n.d.): n. pag. Film Education. Www.filmeducation.org, 2007. Web. <http://www.filmeducation.org/pdf/film/PansLabyrinth.pdf>
Schroeder, Shannin. Rediscovering Magical Realism in the Americas. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2004. Print.
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