“Hello, I’m Princess Moanna and I’m not afraid of you”
Fairytales are very important to us. We all heard them as a child. We all tell them to our children. We all smile when we remember our favourites. Pan’s Labyrinth, put simply, is a fairytale. However, it is so much more than that. I could concentrate on many aspects of this film: cinematography, acting, special effects, costume and set design, score etc and while I will touch on them I am going to concentrate on Guillermo del Toro’s wonderful writing and the many levels on which he manages to engage our emotions. He does so through a set of themes that I shall touch upon.
The film is a Mexican/US/Spanish production set in 1944 Francoist Spain. Del Toro has described this as the sister film to The Devil’s Backbone – also set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War – in that a child’s experience of war is often left out of Hollywood films because they do not take part in actual fighting. And yet it can be just as important and compelling. The film centres on Ofelia, a young girl who is suddenly caught up in the guerrilla war waged after the official end of the Spanish Civil War as her pregnant mother, Carmen, is forced to move in with the child’s father, the fascist leader Captain Vidal. This causes Ofelia to create a world (or is it real?) filled with magical and mystical creatures such as the faun (not Pan as the English title suggests), fairies and monsters.
Ofelia’s innocence is immediately demonstrated by her clutching a book of fairytales but her mother dismisses it as, “Fairytales. You’re a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense”. Inevitably Ofelia sees/believes she sees a fairy like creature emerge which then follows her to her new home with the sinister Vidal whom she immediately dislikes due to his indifference and superiority towards her, “He is not my father. He’s not my father. My father was a tailor. He died in the war. The Captain is not my father.” This protest was aimed towards Vidal’s head servant, Mercedes, who gradually becomes a surrogate mother to Ofelia as the film progresses.
A theme of disobedience and rebellion runs throughout as the all of the main characters reach an impasse at certain points where they must makes decisions. Ofelia has to decide between obeying her mother and new father or believing in the faun and fairies. At one point Doctor Ferreiro says, “ …to obey- just like that- for the sake of obeying… without questioning… that’s something only people like you can do…” Of all the characters the two most juxtaposed are perhaps Carmen and Mercedes. Carmen obeys everything Vidal tell hers to do without question, partly because of her pregnancy but also as she is afraid and tired of fighting a life of loneliness. Mercedes meanwhile is perhaps the most disobedient as she decides to hide her true feelings and motives from the one real monster, Vidal. The allusion of the two sides of the war is present here as are the transfer of motherhood responsibility from Carmen to Mercedes.
The idea of motherhood and fallopian imagery is another recurring and powerful theme used by del Toro in the film. The obvious pregnancy of Carmen is the obvious example and the lullaby hummed by Mercedes has a powerful effect throughout the film enhanced by the vivid pictures that often accompany it. The bleeding of Ofelia’s storybook begins a downward spiral in her and Carmen’s lives as it mimics reality. An image of a fairytale rose growing early in the film references child birth and the fallopian shape of the faun’s horns also does so along with the imagery of a tree Ofelia enters in a show down with a magic toad. The emphasis of nature is crucial to the understanding of the film as we are all subject to its forces.
Greed and gluttony are symbolised by the toad in the tree which is also an insinuation aimed at the fascist regime and Catholic Church of the time that were both rampantly corrupt. This voracity is also shown by the barn full of rations that Vidal keeps locked away from the people who need it as well as the unnecessary amount of food on the Pale Man’s table in spite of his diet not requiring it. Ofelia also fell foul to it on a lesser level as she ate from the table causing her problems, although, her repentance reaction perhaps shows that we are all capable of mistakes and can overcome them.
The idea of bravery vs. cowardice is another subject matter running through the film as all the characters are at a crossroads in their life. Carmen has to decide whether to fight on alone or rely on a man who doesn’t care for her. Vidal has a literal war to fight but he prefers to torture those cannot fight back. Mercedes is working for a man she despises and finds it tough to carry on the charade as does Ferreiro. Ofelia herself is faced with the ultimate decision at the end of the film.
In the end the film is a dark fairytale but, as del Toro puts it, he’s created a “fantasy world as real or scary as the real world”. He believes the point of the film is to have the violence and fantastic together at the same time. The colours of the scenes are important as they signify Ofelia’s journey. The red warm colours show her journey in the fantasy world whereas the cold blue palette is a reflection of the real world. She is reborn during the film and the fantasy and reality almost become one with devastatingly moving consequences. Del Toro has created a masterpiece of juxtaposition with far more symbolism and connections than I could possible go in to here or even understand. A work of pure genius that has to be seen multiple times to be truly appreciated.
If you liked this:
3 recommendations by this writer:
- The Devil’s Backbone
3 top scenes :