Pan's Labyrinth

(El labertino del fauno)

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro

  • Ivana Baquero — Ofelia
  • Ariadna Gil — Carmen Vidal
  • Doug Jones — Fauno; Pale Man
  • Sergi Lopez — Captain Vidal
  • Maribel Verdú — Mercedes

Tequila Gang: 2006
Spanish; subtitles in English

119 minutes October 2007


Pan's Labyrinth is a fantasy film, but one that owes nothing to Anglo-American genre fantasy. Rather, it looks back to the older sources of present-day fantasy in fairy tales and mythology. In the style of some recent Anglo-American fantasy, it integrates this material from older stories with a modern setting: Spain in the 1940s. The perfection with which Guillermo del Toro bonds the two together gives the film an impressive strength.

The fantastic part of the story involves a young girl, Ofelia, traveling with her mother to live with her mother's new husband, Capitan Vidal, in his house in the country. Along the way, they encounter the remains of an ancient labyrinth, and Ofelia believes she sees a fairy flying about it, like the ones in her favorite storybooks. The rest of the movie shows us her further encounters with fairies and with other supernatural creatures, including a faun and a terrifying manlike creature with eyes in the palms of his hands, whose actions might have been inspired by Goya's painting of Saturn. (Pan does not appear anywhere, which may puzzle a viewer who knows only the English title; the Spanish title El labertino del fauno, "the faun's labyrinth", is more accurate.)

In a classic fairy tale plot, Ofelia is given three tasks that she must complete, and prohibitions that she must observe in doing so. Like a proper fairy tale heroine, Ofelia shows herself to be both determined and inventive in carrying out her quest. And as in the better fairy tales, her quest ultimately comes down to the necessity of moral choice.

The context of this fairy story is a realistic narrative focused on Ofelia's mother and stepfather, and on Mercedes, a servant in her new household. Capitan Vidal is shown as an authoritarian figure, obsessed with schedules and constantly consulting his watch. Over the course of the film, we see this in a wider context: The reason he's at that house is that he's been assigned by the Franco regime to hunt down and destroy the remnants of the other side in the Spanish Civil War. His methods range from rationing of food and supplies to starve the rebels out, to executions without trial, to torturing captured rebels for information.

In a particularly striking bit of cinematography, we see him use almost exactly the same speeches at the opening of two different interrogations, making it clear that he's tortured enough people to have reduced it to a routine. It seems quite fitting when, at the end of the film, his outward appearance becomes monstrous; he and the government he serves are the real monsters of this story. On the other side, early in the film, Capitan Vidal reads from a captured revolutionary pamphlet that calls for "No God, no state, and no masters."

Ofelia's quest, then, is for a way out of this brutal world, recalling Tolkien's comment that one of the pleasures of fairy tales is escape and that the people who find escape most objectionable are jailers. Readers of Ayn Rand's literary essays may recall her comments on traditional romantic works, where the hero's pursuit of values leads to his death, because their authors didn't regard values as attainable in the real world. Del Toro gives us a story where this belief appears in an extraordinarily pure form: Ofelia's hope is not to live in this world but to escape to a magical realm that is her true home. But he also shows us that the actual obstacle to pursuing values is political authority — as it was when A. E. Housman wrote "I, a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made", referring not to some abstract metaphysical despair, but to the very real prospect of being sent to prison if he acted on his desires for other men.

Pan's Labyrinth gives us a romantic idealism that hopes for a better world elsewhere, but also a romantic realism that hopes to make this a better world, through struggle against its very real monsters.


© 2007 William H. Stoddard

First published in Prometheus, Winter 2008
Libertarian Futurist Society

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