WARNING: If you have not seen the film, the last three paragraphs reveal the fate of the heroine. If you do not wish to know, then stop reading before you reach that point.
Pan’s Labyrinth is an extraordinary film boasting a touching performance from Ivana Baquero, playing Ofelia, an innocent young girl introduced against her will to the evils of the Spanish Civil War. The visuals of this film are literally out of this world. The special effects are breathtaking involving the creation of several memorable evil dream-fantasy creatures. In fact, the dream sequences in the film are so riveting that the “reality” sequences sometimes pale in comparison.
In 1944, a few years after the Spanish royalists lost the Civil War to Franco’s fascists, a widow marries a Spanish army captain (Sergi Lopez). He commands a remote northern Spanish garrison where he’s assigned to root out remnants of royalist resistance. The marriage is clearly one of convenience for her, as the love of her life was her first husband, a tailor, who was killed during the fighting. She brings with her a teenage daughter just beginning to enter the realms of sexual, intellectual and moral discovery that come with adolescence.
For the captain, the marriage has one purpose alone: to provide a male heir. He is a brutal, true-believer fascist who brooks no opposition from royalists, family or his own household staff. In fact, the least sign of resistance brings to bear fearful levels of violence. In this character, the director has created a perfect foil for the tender girl who will be his nemesis.
Rounding out the cast is another sterling performance from Maribel Verdu, who plays Mercedes, the housekeeper (also a royalist sympathizer). The outcome of the plot turns on the bonds of affection that develop between her and the daughter. The housekeeper quickly understands the loneliness and despair of the little girl consigned to a loveless family life (apart from her mother’s affection) in a place next door to Oblivion. For her part, the daughter immediately senses the housekeeper’s Republican sympathies and protects her, thus cementing their bonds.
The mother is pregnant with the captain’s child when she arrives. The pregnancy does not go well. Her daughter is desperate to help and so begins her descent into a rich and frightening dream world in which she seeks help for her earthly problems only to be posed frightening challenges by the hoary creatures she meets. These scenes, as I said, are alternately spectacularly beautiful and bare-knuckle frightening.
Del Toro has created a memorable character in the Faun (Doug Jones), phantasmagorical satyr right out of a Picasso painting or Nijinsky dancing the Rites of Spring. The faun is alternately Ofelia’s guide to the nether world, her protector, her chastiser, and perhaps even her leering enemy. Until the end, even Ofelia doesn’t know which of all these facets is his true character (and perhaps we’re meant to think that all of them are). Young’s deep soothing/threatening/leering vocal delivery is absolutely perfect for the part. The actor also doubles as the other horrific fantasy character, the Pale Man, with empty eye sockets and eyeballs which he inserts into his hands before he makes a mad dash to capture Ofelia. The entire scene will make your hair, if not entire body, stand on end.
A leitmotif of the film which no reviewer I’ve read has remarked upon is the fantasy scenes as allegorical commentary on the Civil War. Captain Vidal seems the embodiment of Franco. Ofelia seems the embodiment of the Spanish nation, and more specifically the martyrs who fought and died for the Republican cause, enduring long suffering at the hands of Franco. And Ofelia’s brother, with whom Carmen is pregnant, is reminiscent of King Juan Carlos, the current Spanish monarch who endured decades as a seeming enabler and supporter of Franco only to emerge after his death as a full-fledged democrat and savior of the nation. In the film, Carmen endures a harrowing pregnancy and eventually dies during childbirth. Her son survives at least partly due to the fairy aid that Ofelia provides from nighttime forays into the Pan’s world.
Just as the Spanish people persevered through the suffocating and stultifying Franco years with their national dignity intact, so too Ofelia never succumbs to the unrelenting pressure of Vidal to conform to his brutal will. At the conclusion of the film, Vidal tries to remove the baby from her arms with an appeal to obey his order. She resists to the end and pays the ultimate price for retaining her humanity and honor.
It is through her sacrifice that her brother is born and later saved from Vidal’s clutches. In the final scene, in which Ofelia dies and enters the world of the Labyrinth as the Princess she had earlier been foretold to be, del Toro tells us that the sacrifice of the martyrs has not been in vain. That it has a reason. And that reason is the explosion of creativity and democracy personified in post-Franco Spain. Ofelia, in this final fantasy sequence joins her dead father and mother sitting on enormous throne-towers in a sort of Holy Trinity of Spanish royalty.
In the penultimate resolve, the director returns us to Ofelia’s dying body as blood drips from it onto the stones of the Labyrinth. The next image we see is of the mythical date tree (pictured in the film poster above), which had been afflicted with disease borne by the noxious Toad. But after Ofelia has slain the Toad and watered the tree with her blood, we see in the final shot the tree in all its towering majesty. This brought to mind for me Thomas Jefferson’s famous quotation:
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
The housekeeper has shed Vidal’s blood, Vidal has shed Ofelia’s blood, Carmen has shed her own blood in conceiving her son. All of which allows the Tree of Liberty to flourish in the form of a gloriously reborn Spain.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.