It seems hard to believe, but Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is now over a decade old. This little-Spanish-movie-that-could took Guillermo del Toro from the pride of fanboys and Mexican cinema to the elite of Hollywood auteurs. What elevates Pan’s Labyrinth, and justifies its inclusion as this week’s Pick of Online film here on culturised, is its innovative combination of both a wartime and fantasy tropes to create a unique cinematic experience.
Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Laberinto del Fauno to use its Spanish title) is a study of fantasy and choice in a world preoccupied with combat. Set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War and an era very much defined by this recent struggle, the narrative follows young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who after moving with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to the station of her new fascist stepfather, the Fangalist Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Here she discovers a labyrinth in the neighboring wood, in which she meets the eponymous Faun of Pan’s Labyrinth. The Faun (Doug Jones) informs her that she is the reincarnation of the King Below’s daughter, Princess Moanna, and gives her a book outlining three tasks she must complete before the next full moon to reclaim her throne and return to her father and the underworld.
Del Toro consistently uses his camera work and symbolism to weave the two generic elements of fantasy and war into a cohesive whole. What del Toro achieves through this is to tell Ofelia’s fantastic story against the backdrop of her Fascist stepfather’s actions, and in doing so he has created a film that explores both genres without compromise and brings the two into dialogue with each other. From the film’s opening moments depicting Ofelia’s final moments the audience is forced into acknowledging the realities of the dangers present for the film’s characters. The role of Pan’s Labyrinth in the fantasy genre is to break down and expose the tiredness of some of the genre’s expectations, whilst replacing them with elements of uncertainty that exist within the dangers of films included in the war genre; it accomplishes this without ever depicting explicit warfare.
One such moment in Pan’s Labyrinth that achieves this generic fusion is when Ofelia must conquer the first task in the Faun’s book. The scene begins with a voiceover narration provided by Ofelia describing that she must devise a way to make the toad – who has taken up residence under the tree – eat three stones and regurgitate a key. From the outset of the scene as Ofelia approaches the tree the audience is treated to several symbolic pieces of information. First is Ofelia’s dress that her mother has given her, which is an almost exact replica of the dress worn by Alice in the Disney film Alice in Wonderland (1951): only the replacement of the color blue with the much more natural and organic dark green separates the two dresses. Through this wardrobe choice, del Toro creates a visual link that takes the fantastical connotations of Alice in Wonderland brings and infuses them into Pan’s Labyrinth. It is a moment that is solidified as Ofelia descends down into the bowels of the Faun-shaped fig tree, a sequence which mirrors Alice’s descent into wonderland.
These features demonstrate the scene’s link to fantasy tropes, but it do not make this section of the film function as a simple one-dimensional homage. Although del Toro visually references Alice in Wonderland during the opening sequence of the scene, he is also careful to include the image of Ofelia taking off her Alice-esque dress and hanging it over one of the branches of the fig tree. He complicates the symbolism of the scene by including a shot of Ofelia looking down to discover that the ground leading up to and inside the tree is thick with churned mud. In this moment Del Toro succeeds in demonstrating an already established set of fantastical expectations with the dress, and both Ofelia and Alice’s mirrored descents into the earth. However, by showing the viscous ground and the dress’s removal, he refers back to the reality of violence, darkness, and danger established in the opening scene. This isn’t a clear sunny day, such as Alice encounters in Oxford when she falls down the rabbit hole. Instead, Ofelia must contend with a physical manifestation of the crippling war that has recently ravaged Spain, once again subverting generic expectations and thus pushing them into a new orientation. Del Toro swiftly follows this up by following Ofelia in to the filth of the tree’s bowels in a dolly shot before it is “wiped” off by a sequence involving the destructive Captain Vidal.
This dual narrative structure is one of the great strengths of Pan’s Labyrinth. In one narrative line there is the story of Ofelia navigating the Faun’s fantastical requirements, while the other depicts not only Ofelia’s interactions with Captain Vidal, but also his ruthless hunt for Anti-Franco rebels in the woods surrounding their house. However, Del Toro does not stop there; as seen in the sequence above he structures the film so that the two narratives are in constant dialogue with one another. Franco’s war, and subsequent fascist rule, can be seen infecting fantastical world of Ofelia and the Faun through the symbols of mud and Toad under the base of the tree.
I could continue unpacking Pan’s Labyrinth almost endlessly. It will suffice to say there is enough symbolism and style to fill an exploration of almost any length, but I’ll limit myself to the sequence above so that you can experience for yourselves – either for the first time, or in a repeat viewing – the symbolic richness del Toro creates. What this visionary director achieved in Pan’s Labyrinth was to create something truly unique: an adult fairytale that explores the grim reality of war and conflict, whilst setting these realities against the surreal elements of life lived in a time of struggle. It’s a timely film, with a narrative style that has an impact that can certainly still be felt today, eleven years after its release.
Pan’s Labyrinth is available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video in the US and on Netflix in the UK