I have a love affair with dark, slightly disturbing and fantastic films. I am always searching for symbolism, particularly in fantasy settings. It has brought a different level to my entertainment, from symbolism-riddled films like Lord of the Rings to the intentional allegory of Narnia and the subtle but profound messages in Harry Potter.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a film full of questions — is the magic real or is it in her head? Did what happen happen because of her participation or in spite of it? How much of it was fabrication and fact? Basically, the same question asked over and over again, in a film in which the director has taken great pains to cause the audience to doubt, to wonder, to reason, to argue. It is a brilliant film, but one riddled with darkness that at times might be too intense for most audiences. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering, from thinking, from musing…
The story revolves around the conclusion of the Spanish War. Mercenaries continue to hide in the high country, and it is the job of the villain, Captain Vidal, to seek them out and kill them all. He has recently married a young widow with an eleven-year-old child, Ofelia. (I am assuming that she shares the name of a tragic Shakespeare heroine is not an accident — his Ophelia was considered “mad” too.) Vidal is a brutal man who cares nothing for anyone and is hounded by memories of his father’s death. From this comes one of the most profound aspects of the movie — the message that “It is not your death that is important, but the manner of (how you choose) your death.” Ofelia soon discovers a labyrinth that introduces her to a Faun who informs her that she is the cast-off spirit of a princess from another realm who must complete three tasks in order to return, before the rise of the full moon.
In accomplishing these tasks, Ofelia displays her cunning and intelligence, as well as her courage (in one, she tricks a giant frog into eating precious stones that will destroy him) but also realizes the consequences of disobedience (one such crime in the second task contributes to the deaths of two of her fairy companions, and nearly her own demise). The film has us wondering… is the Faun good or evil? Is he telling the truth? What does he really want from her? In the end, of course, we learn some of the answers, enough of them to form a conclusion, but whether or not all that transpired actually happened or was inside her head in an effort to soften the sadness of her surroundings, we will never know. That is up to personal interpretation — if you are an optimist, you will believe her; the pessimist will not.
The writer/director’s past is Catholic but his faith has lapsed. That doesn’t prevent symbolism and on occasion, harsh criticism, from pervading his film. Essentially, it is a movie about Choices, Temptation, Disobedience, and Love. Ofelia could even be compared to Eve in the banquet hall. She has been given her task, and warned not under any circumstances to eat anything from the table. Even though there is a monstrous looking creature asleep at one end of it, she stops to look. The grapes look so tantalizing… so in spite of the fairies’ warnings, she eats one. All she had to do was not eat the fruit. But she did, and faced terrible consequences.
Herein is contained the criticism: the director has been quoted as saying that he believes the Catholic Church during the Spanish War acted out the role of the Pale Man — the monster that sits at the end of the table, waiting for a child to eat from the banquet. Rather than gorging itself on the bounty before him, he chooses to consume Innocence at its peak. This is rather a brutal assessment, but may not be entirely undeserved when considering the occasional abuses of the Church in ignoring suffering merely to line its pockets. (One line from a priest early on is an actual quote from one — that it is best we reckon with our souls, because God doesn’t care what happens to our bodies. Which is essentially true, in a way… the salvation of our souls is worth more than the preservation of our mortal forms, but still comes across as jaded and callous when misunderstood or spoken without reverence.)
Without revealing the ending, I cannot say much about the last twist, but it becomes profoundly obvious to believers that it carries a message of “payment through blood.” Shed the blood of an innocent and achieve eternal life. Interestingly enough, the movie takes a different (but not necessarily anti-religious) turn. I would like to think the fantasy world was real, that it was not a figment of Ofelia’s imagination, and there are significant indicators along the way that this is indeed real. (For example, if she could not “create” doors, how could she have gotten from her locked room to the captain’s room?) Even that is uniquely revealing, rather like Christianity as a whole. Those who believe it, believe it, and the skeptics choose not to believe it, even in spite of spinning white pieces of chalk that indicate miracles along the way.
It is not your typical fantasy. It’s a bit dark for that. Anyone expecting muppet-like characters or David Bowie crooning a tune might want to reconsider, since this isn’t Labyrinth. This is a dark, brutal fairy tale with historical undertones. And, I must admit, a fabulous villain who made the muscles of my stomach tense whenever he walked into a room. In some ways, I think his barbarity outshone the antics of the sinister Faun, the creepiness of the toad consuming all in its path, and even the Pale Man. And, I think that was rather the point, that fabricated evils can never be as horrific as genuine ones.