Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in Spain during the year of 1944, and is an amazingly strange mix of dark fantasy and brutal realism. It’s like Hemingway and Cervantes joining forces to co-write the script. Instead of Don Quixote chasing after windmills, we have a ten-year old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) communing with the god, Pan, and various fairies to save her pregnant mother, Carmen (Adriadna Gil). It’s fortunate that she has such a vivid imagination because there is little else in her life to inspire hope. Her mother, recently widowed, married Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a sadistic man and fascist who has no sentimental or romantic impulses. He listens to music only to admire his own face while shaving, and his greatest enjoyment is to torture the Spanish Guerillas that he captures. As Carmen is in poor health, the Captain hires a doctor (Alex Angulo) and a maid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), to assist. The Captain cares little if his new wife lives, but he does want a healthy son. The Captain gets his wish as Carmen dies in childbirth while the infant boy survives. Ofelia is then left alone with no one but Mercedes to care for her.
To back up for a moment, there is a labyrinth outside of the old home or castle in which Ofelia and her mother stay. Ofelia spends a great deal of time in the labyrinth imagining that she’s a part of some great movement. She meets Pan, a sometime friendly and sometime ominous supernatural being (we’re never quite sure which he is in fact), who gives her various instructions on what to do to help her mother. The instructions that she follows lead her into a bizarre world full of magic and many dangers. Though Carmen admonishes Ofelia and makes it clear that she does not approve of Ofelia’s fantasies, the strange tasks that Ofelia performs at the bequest of Pan appear to actually work. The magic roots, for example, that she puts under her mother’s bed seem to revive her mother’s health. The Captain, of course, thinks Ofelia is a blithering idiot for her supernatural chatter. It’s the Captain’s lack of patience and dictatorial manner that effectively puts a stop to what Ofelia is doing and the roots are tossed in a fire.
To back up even further, there happens to be a group of Spanish Guerillas whose success perplexes the Captain. With the Spanish Civil War having ended five years before and with hundreds of so-called traitors being shot on a daily basis, the Captain cannot understand how the guerillas could survive without outside assistance. The Captain investigates. The Captain finds a bottle of antibiotics among a guerilla camp that resembles the bottles that are used by the doctor treating Carmen. The Captain shoots the doctor in the head. When the Captain’s warehouse was plundered without the lock being broken, he figures that Mercedes gave the guerrillas a key. He is prepared to deal with both Mercedes and Ofelia, because the two are very close. However, here the Captain makes a great mistake by underestimating them. Mercedes always keeps a knife hidden away in her blouse, and the Captain neglects to search her. Mercedes stabs the Captain several times and leaves a severe scar on his face. As she does not have time to kill him she is forced to run away. The Captain stitches the scar together on his face by his own hand with his own needle and thread showing that he is a lunatic.
Ofelia, in the meantime (since her mother is already dead), snatches her baby brother and takes him down the labyrinth in hopes that the fairies can save them both. Captain Vidal pursues her. The Captain, of course, cannot see Pan or the fairies (not that it matters because Pan does nothing to stop the Captain). As Ofelia cannot bring herself to shed the blood of her brother (disobeying the instructions of Pan), she is forced to give the infant boy back to the Captain. The Captain thanks Ofelia by shooting her. The Captain then leaves the labyrinth only to face a whole unit of guerillas at the entrance. Captain Vidal hands the baby boy to Mercedes. Mercedes taunts the Captain, and Mercedes’ brother (one of the guerillas) then puts the Captain out of everyone else’s misery. And though the Ofelia’s life is over, she then goes to a sort of heaven and meets Pan, her dead mother and father while wearing ruby red shoes (I’m not making that up).
Obviously, the director, Guillermo del Toro, had an ax to grind against the Franco regime. Captain Vidal appears for the director to be a symbol of the fascist regime, itself. I have no qualms with this because: (1) del Toro is straightforward about what he thinks of Franco; (2) the Captain as played by Sergi Lopez is a magnificent as a horrible villain; and (3) regimes like this could only have thrived because of individuals like the Captain. The guerillas in the movie, on the other hand, are a bit too romanticized. Like the cavalry, they ride to the rescue in the end to save Mercedes and the infant boy. The guerillas were probably guilty of a few things as well.
There is a danger in a movie like this because a positive reaction to it is somewhat dependent upon an audience that is thoughtful and that cares. Most Americans are ignorant upon what goes on beyond their shores and will want the director to hold their hand to make it possible to understand the movie’s conception. They will take it for granted that no experience or understanding of the subject is required beyond what is shown on the screen - and they will completely take the director at his word. Unfortunately, with the numbers of Spaniards that died as a result of the resistance during the 1930s and 1940s, it necessarily also means that there would have been atrocities committed by both sides. I doubt that most people will make note of this by watching Pan’s Labyrinth. This is not to say the director was wrong in his sympathies towards the Loyalists. But it becomes easy for one to say that the Loyalists are good and the fascists are bad rather than study the issue further. This does a disservice to everyone.
Still, the message that imagination is essential to maintain one’s humanity is powerfully brought across. Ivana Baquero as Ofelia is magnificent here. Ofelia has to believe that life is magical - not only to survive but also to flourish. She refuses to believe that the indifference to torture and murder around her is all that one can expect of this world. When she tells Mercedes that she could never turn her in for the maid’s resistance sympathies, Ofelia does it by adding that she would never want to see Mercedes hurt. In fact, what she is really saying is that she only wishes Mercedes a life where she is free to think and dream what she wants. To Ofelia, the world only becomes real through beauty and intrigue. In this, she is far superior to her stepfather, Captain Vidal, a capable and unimaginative bureaucrat (much like Francisco Franco). Vidal believes in nothing. He is nothing more than a puppet or tool for the Franco regime, and he never strives to be anything remotely human. He is cold, cruel and ultimately dull.
That Spain is a land of fiestas and running with the bulls will suffice for the average tourist. That the Spaniards are a complex people who have suffered interests few people at all. Ever since Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, thousands of Americans have traveled to Pamplona every year to spend two weeks getting drunk and to see if anyone is gored to death while the bulls are released upon the streets. That Hemingway spoke to more than just this has probably escaped these individuals as well. In any case, after the fiesta in Pamplona is over, the travelers usually then return to the states to leave the Spaniards alone to clean up the mess. Nobody cares. Thus, no one will be appropriately moved by Pan Labyrinth if they are incapable of seeing that the girl and her mother were also victims of the Franco regime, that they suffered, and that they had a right to be free. That would require imagination, compassion and a willingness to look beyond our own borders.
© Robert S. Miller 2007