Film Review: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Spoiler alert: This review gives away major plot details—including, especially, the end of the movie—that some may wish not to know before seeing the film. If this describes you, bookmark this page and come back after you have seen the movie. Otherwise, keep reading!

The tagline of last year’s “fantastic”—in more ways than one—film, Pan’s Labyrinth, is: “Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot Imagine.” And this is quite apposite.

Guillermo del Toro, the director of Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno or The Labyrinth of the Faun), is deeply interested in the themes of innocence, power, and responsibility. His comic-book adaptation, Hellboy, is about a demon who is brought to earth by Nazis but ends up turning against his hellish origins and fighting against evil. His otherworldly powers become the occasion for the victory of good over evil. Moreover, Hellboy chooses to take on human form out of love for humanity in his heart. Rather than an incarnation of evil, Hellboy is an incarnation of good. In a way, Pan’s Labyrinth must be understood in relation to this prior artistic project.[Fn1] However different the two films are, both are deeply concerned with the relation between innocence and guilt, good and evil. While both films are, in the broadest sense, mythical adaptations of the cosmic conflict between Good and Evil—and thus stand in a long line of artistic renditions of this primal story—Pan’s Labyrinth stands apart as a specifically Christological retelling of this salvific mission.[Fn2]

Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Spain in 1944, right after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, and at the height of Fascist repression of resistance forces. A young girl, Ofelia, comes with her pregnant mother to live with her mother’s new husband, Captain Vidal, the leader of the Fascist forces. The ruthless Captain is stationed in a remote area in northern Spain where the last vestiges of the resistance remain. The area is lush and verdant, but for the imaginative Ofelia, it is also ancient, magical, and full of foreboding mystery. From the moment she arrives, she encounters a harsh world of sickness, deception, and death in which the Captain reigns as the violent lord of evil. There, in the midst of hell, Ofelia discovers a second world—one in which she is a princess, in which she has a unique origin, and in which she has a mission to accomplish. I say “discover” quite deliberately. The second world is not a creation of her imagination; it is a world into which she stumbles as an innocent, wide-eyed little girl.

The film deftly transitions between narratives: the story of her mother’s troubled pregnancy, the story of the Captain’s attempt to rout the resistance forces, the story of those who work for the Captain but remain loyal to the resistance, and finally—woven throughout these stories—the magical narrative of Ofelia’s mission to establish her identity as Princess Morana. The last of these narratives begins when Ofelia stumbles into a labyrinth behind the home of the Captain. At the end of the maze, she meets a mysterious faun who tells her that she is a princess—or, at least, that is her proper identity. Her immortal regality remains, however, a potentiality that requires actualization—or, more properly, confirmation—through the accomplishment of three tasks. To this end, the faun gives Ofelia a magical book to guide her on our journey. And with this cryptic introduction, the adventure begins.

The particulars of each task are finally not all that significant. Each task sets up the next, culminating in the final, climactic end. Moreover, each task becomes more and more dangerous, paralleling the growing menace in the “real world” (the “scare-quotes” are quite deliberate). As the Captain continues to expand his inhuman reign of evil, and as the resistance fighters grow stronger and more confident, the ominous events in human “reality” compel Ofelia to pursue a deeper Reality—full of its own evils, yet with a telos in mind.

We would greatly misunderstand this story, however, if we were to impose an artificial dichotomy between the “historical-real” world and the “magical-fantastic” world, between an objective world and a subjective world.[Fn3] Pan’s Labyrinth is entirely unlike Finding Neverland in this regard. Ofelia’s adventures are not at all comparable to the daydreams of J. M. Barrie. Her tasks have ramifications for the historical world. The world of the faun is not simply a concoction of her young, imaginative mind. Pan’s Labyrinth presents no real-unreal dualism; rather, the distinction is between real and Real. The “second world” is the Real world. As one reviewer aptly states, Pan’s Labyrinth is “realer than reality itself.” According to del Toro in an interview with Terry Gross, “what [Ofelia] sees is a fully blown reality. … I believe her tale not to be just a reflection from the world around her, but to me she really turns into the princess.”

In an important sense, therefore, the film is a criticism of the finality that we associate with our reality. Part of this critique involves the all important insight—which del Toro stated in the aforementioned interview—that all reality is, in a very real sense, imagined:
The entire world we live in is fabricated: Republican/Democrat, left/right, morning/night, geography and borders—all these things are conceits. Borders are not visible from a satellite picture. The fact that you can have a civil war where two sides kill each other, and essentially from afar they look exactly the same. They are both the same human beings; they share the same taste for food; they sing the same songs. This imagined conceit can create such horrors.
According to del Toro, our entire existence is compassed with imaginary constructs: national borders, political divisions, economic trade, time, traffic, etc. Of course, as we act on our imagination, these things take shape in the world. The tangibility of reality, however, does not negate the imagined character of so much of our lives. In other words, what we experience objectively with our senses is not, by definition, unimagined, and conversely what we imagine is not, by definition, simply a subjective idea in our heads. The very structures of our everyday existence require a kind of imagination. The genre of fantasy, especially in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, exposes the artifice of our everyday lives through the unfolding of what del Toro calls “spiritual reality,” which is not opposed to our embodied reality but rather transcends it. Del Toro’s thought on this matter bears a close affinity to the theological work of William Cavanaugh, who opens his book on Theopolitical Imagination by stating: “Politics is a practice of the imagination.” Cavanaugh stresses many of the same points about the imagined nature of national borders and our notions of space and time. But he, too, wishes to posit a spiritual reality—in this case, the reality of the Eucharist which “overcomes the dichotomy of universal and local.” The Eucharist, like Pan’s Reality, transcends the finite divisions and imagined conceits that define our imagined human existence.

As a “spiritual reality,” fantasy is also a critical reality—a Reality that critiques reality. In the same interview, del Toro said that there are two kinds of fairytales and two kinds of horror films: those that are in favor of the present world—“the Establishment,” as del Toro calls it—and those that are against it.[Fn4] One kind uncritically affirms our present reality; the other kind, the better kind according to del Toro, criticizes it with “a beautiful anarchy.” Along with his other films, Pan’s Labyrinth falls in the latter category. His films, del Toro said, are attempts at grappling with the brokenness of our world. Rather than romanticizing our existence, del Toro admitted that he prefers subversive art which stands radically apart from the world as we see it by means of “a destructive, iconoclastic, liberating sense of anarchy.” Liberation, rather than uncritical affirmation, governs the way his films interact with human existence. In a lesser way, this is true of Finding Neverland as well—in fact, of any story which presents the common impulse to escape the confines of our fallen human existence. Pan’s Labyrinth, however, does not rest content with mere critique. Beyond anarchy, del Toro’s films offer an even more radical alternative. Pan’s Labyrinth stands apart from critical-escapist narratives by positing a constructive alternative, in which reality is not only condemned but overcome by true Reality. We might classify Pan’s Labyrinth thus as a critically realistic fable of redemption[Fn5]—one which takes its basic contours from the biblical narrative of Christ’s mission of redemption.

While Pan’s Labyrinth is no allegory, it is nevertheless a creative retelling of the Christian narrative. Such an interpretation may seem at first glance an unfaithful reading of the film, but del Toro already demonstrated in Hellboy that he has an interest in biblical themes. Moreover, del Toro grew up as a Catholic and has carried with him the religious sensibilities inculcated in his youth. Here, in Pan’s Labyrinth, he adapts a more specifically Christian framework for the purposes of telling the story of Ofelia. In order to appreciate the story properly, we must be careful not to read more into the film than we are given; at the same time, we must also recognize the multiple levels on which del Toro is working, which often lead to surprising discoveries.

The film begins by setting up the mythical narrative within which Ofelia lives. The narrator tells of a princess who incarnates herself as a young girl in order to complete a particular mission; if it is left incomplete, then the princess will return at another time and another place. (For this reason, the historical setting of the film is finally unimportant; del Toro happens to have a special interest in the period encompassed by the Spanish Civil War and WWII due to his conviction that this is a period of our history neglected to our shame.) In Pan’s Reality, therefore, Ofelia is the incarnation of this princess who descends from her transcendent origin to enter the hellish reality of Fascist Spain for the purpose of fulfilling a regal mission. The nature of this commission is unclear until the final moments of the film, in which reality gives way to Reality. Ofelia’s three tasks lead her to a point of crisis: the faun declares that her final task requires that he take blood from her infant brother, since only the blood of an innocent will complete her mission. Ofelia must then choose between sacrificing the life of her brother for the sake of her own immortality or sacrificing her immortality for the sake of her brother. Ofelia chooses the latter. She relinquishes her own regal-divine identity for the sake of another. She denies glory and power for herself in order that her brother may live. In other words, she chooses the cross in his place and on his behalf. Ofelia elects death that life might come to others.

Ofelia’s death at the hands of the Captain is a tragic and deeply unsettling event.[Fn6] Like the crucifixion of Jesus, her death appears to be the victory of evil. She seems to have failed her final task, and her horrific death only compounds the already great sense of devastation. And yet it is her blood that becomes the innocent sacrifice. Her death is the completion of the mission. What seems like failure turns out to be, in fact, her greatest victory. Ofelia’s apparently senseless death is in fact the occasion for her brother’s life and her own ascension to the right hand of her father. With her death, Ofelia enters the throne room of the Real, the place where her father and mother sit in heavenly splendor, and where she takes her place as the princess she truly is. And as if the biblical allusions were not strong enough, Ofelia hears from her father what essentially amounts to, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

As that final scene indicates, Pan’s Labyrinth can also be interpreted from another angle entirely, in which Ofelia is not the princess-savior but the princess-pilgrim. Her pilgrimage begins not because of some wild imagination, but rather because of her childlike faith. She embarks on a journey that reveals itself to her due to the pure receptivity of her faith. But Ofelia, like any true human, is not perfect; like any other person, she makes mistakes and even falls to temptation in the second task. Ofelia is thus a kind of Everyman or Everywoman, and her life is in movement toward a telos that comes to her, finally, as a gift. When, at the end, she is reunited with her mother and father, we see that the three of them are connected both by a blood relation and, most importantly, by a kind of spiritual relation. All three of them gave up their lives in sacrificial love—the father as a tailor for the army who received no honor, the mother in giving birth to Ofelia’s infant brother, and finally Ofelia herself also giving away her life for her brother. The three are united in regal splendor because all three were “good and faithful servants.”

The film sharply contrasts the way of life characterized by Ofelia and her family and the way of life characterized by the Captain. Not only are the former marked by sacrificial love, they are also marked by a radical commitment to peace in the midst of war and violence. According to del Toro, “Everybody else here or there [in the film] chooses violence; the girl chooses not to exert [violence].” The contrast is not simply limited to peace versus violence, though this is a central motif throughout the film. The larger dialectic in the story is between “the way of life and the way of death” (Jer. 21:8). Ofelia chooses life, while the Captain chooses death (cf. Deut. 30:19). Ofelia is defined by bringing life to others (her first task involves bringing a dead tree back to life), while the Captain takes like away from others. Ofelia seeks peace for all, while the Captain seeks bellum totum—total war. Ofelia chooses to affirm the humanity of others, while the Captain chooses to dehumanize his enemies, which includes even Ofelia and her mother.[Fn7] For the Captain, all things in the world are means toward some other end: Ofelia’s mother is a means toward having a son, the captured rebels are tortured as a means toward military victory, and those who work for the Captain are means toward building his power and reputation. However, the film graphically and profoundly portrays the Captain’s proclivity for murder as the one act which has no rationale. Murder is utterly senseless, and the fact that Ofelia’s murder is really a life-giving self-sacrifice changes nothing about the Captain’s irrational brutality. Her sacrifice is simply a testament to the way Reality works in and through everyday reality, transforming violence into peace and death into life. In light of this tension between Ofelia and the Captain—between the way of life and the way of death—it is particularly interesting to note how insistent the Captain is that she call him “father,” and how persistently Ofelia denies him that title.

If we look at this film as a fantastical portrayal of Christian existence—that is, truly human existence—then we have in Ofelia a portrayal of what it means to live in obedience to one’s calling. Her life was entirely shaped by her mission—a peaceful mission of sacrificial, life-giving love. In the midst of a world crashing down around her, Ofelia pursued a new world: one in which the monsters of the underworld are both more real and more significant than the monsters of the human world; one in which she has a valuable role to play and her identity is affirmed as having inestimable worth; one in which she can truly bring about a change from evil to good and from death to life. This “new world” or Real world is not the perfect paradise we might secretly desire when we are caught in the midst of an earthly hell. On the contrary, the Real world Ofelia discovers is full of its own horrors and imperfections and dangers. It is not the world that she wants, but it is the world that she has. Similarly, in Gethsemane, Jesus comes to grips with the fact that the way of the cross may not be the world that he wants, but it is the world to which he is called. Ofelia discovers a world which is neither a dream nor a nightmare but simply a Reality that comes to her, unannounced and unexpected—a world in which she must find her way as a pilgrim who knows her true identity despite all appearances to the contrary.

In both my Christological and anthropological readings of Pan’s Labyrinth, the nature of identity thus remains the central emphasis. At the beginning of this reflection, I referred to Ofelia’s mission as an attempt to establish her identity, but the story is actually more complex than this. Before she even begins the first task, Ofelia discovers—based on the faun’s suggestion—that she has the mark of the moon on her shoulder. Her very identity as the princess is secure long before she completes the final task. In other words, her life is ordered toward a particular telos prior to and apart from the actual confirmation of this identity through her own actions. Ofelia is set apart for a mission that comes to her from without and does not depend solely upon her response. Ofelia’s identity is a gift, and as she discovers this new world unfolding before her, she also discovers herself.

If Ofelia is marked from the start in terms of her regal identity, she is also marked in terms of her mission. Here the film uses classical irony, meaning the audience knows something the character does not. The film actually begins, presumably, at the end; the opening scene shows a young girl dead, blood running down her nose. Much like the opening of Memento, time runs backwards and the blood returns to her body as the scene cuts and the narrative of Ofelia begins. One might read this opening scene in two ways: either this is the end of Ofelia, the girl that we meet subsequently in Pan’s Labyrinth, or this could be a previous incarnation of the princess which then sets up the story of Ofelia. Either way, the tragic death of the innocent encompasses the story. We begin and end with a horrific death. To draw another Christological parallel, in the same way that Jesus’ life is ordered from the moment of incarnation toward the cross, so too in Pan’s Labyrinth, we know from the very beginning that Ofelia’s life is ordered toward a terrible end. Her identity as Princess Morana comes with a mission that ends with her own cross.

I return now to the movie’s tagline: “Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot Imagine.” The relation between Ofelia and the Captain is clearly the central protagonist-antagonist or thesis-antithesis relation in the film. Ofelia represents goodness and innocence and love; the Captain, evil and guilt and hate. In our everyday human world—a world thoroughly shaped by Nietzsche and the “will to power”—the Captain seems to be the one who wields power and influence. Ofelia seemingly represents weakness and impotence. And yet, contra Nietzsche, Pan’s Labyrinth reveals the subversive power of love. If one had to pick another tagline, it would have to be 1 Cor. 1:27-28:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.
This passage from Paul’s letter refers most directly to the proclamation of “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) which demonstrates that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25). Again, the analogy between Ofelia and Christ is important. Ofelia, like Christ, is foolish and weak and despised in the eyes of the “real” world. She has no apparent power to alter the course of reality. Her subjugation to the Captain seems complete and her failure seems final. Her death, like the death of Christ, appears to be the victory of evil and the confirmation of Nietzsche.

Yet, according to Paul, it is precisely the crucified Christ who is the Lord of glory. The ignoble cross is the axis of history and the center of human existence. In precisely this way, Ofelia’s death is the event in which the weak shames the strong, in which innocence triumphs victorious over evil. Even more significantly, Paul writes that God chose “things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are.” Is this not exactly what we see in Pan’s Labyrinth? The fantastical world of “things that are not”—at least, according to the standards set by the human-historical world—is what reduces to nothing “things that are.” What seems to be nothing ends up changing everything. This is precisely how the film is a critically realistic narrative: the film does not merely criticize human strength, human violence, and human dehumanization; the film reduces such things to naught through the subversive victory of the new world—the spiritual, Real world—actualized in the life and death of Ofelia.

In conclusion, though Guillermo del Toro grew up as a devout Catholic, he eventually left the faith. He explains the transition from faith to doubt as follows:
I was a choir boy. I was a member of the Virgin Mary Society. And I was this and I was that. And then, when you reach your teenage years, I discovered that the world was much wider. I started working in a place where I had to go through the morgue. One day I saw such a horrifying sight at the morgue that instantly showed me there was no real order in the universe, at least not a conscious order dictated by a guy in white robes and a long beard. It really shook me. [Terry Gross asks: “What did you see?”] I saw a pile of fetuses that was about five feet tall. There was such a harrowing variety of things going on there on every level [at the morgue]. I just realized, I guess we are on our own, so we better make the best of it. It’s this world that I saw that made me love with a passion the world that I was creating.
What changed del Toro was the problem of evil.[Fn8] The haunting reality in which we live was simply too anarchic to be the domain of a loving, all-powerful God. And consequently he began to make films that were themselves anarchic in character, stories that were in rebellion against the rebelliousness of this present world. As he admitted, “horror and fantasy saved my brain” and “allowed me to survive” in the midst of such a difficult, violent, and confusing adolescence.

In the end, how did del Toro get so much of the gospel right in Pan’s Labyrinth, even though he got so much of the gospel wrong growing up? Del Toro has the mistaken view that Christianity is simply a religion that protects you from hell and conforms a person into a particular religious mold. And he is not alone in holding such a view. Christianity was and often still is part and parcel of the Establishment. As part of the cultural-historical framework, Christianity said Yes to the world; it was an uncritical faith that adapted and conformed to reality. Christianity blessed the world’s injustices rather than rebelling against them. All of this is still too often true today. Thus, del Toro feels compelled in his own artistic works to carry out the rebellion which religion failed to do. In doing so, he ended up discovering the gospel.

Pan’s Labyrinth is thus, in many ways, a testament to what the gospel truly is—a gospel of anarchic liberation. Christianity is properly a religion of rebellion and revolution. The Christian faith subverts the Establishment in the event of the cross and actualizes a new world in the event of the resurrection. Like the film, the Christian faith is a critically realistic narrative of redemption. The gospel does not uncritically affirm this world but instead looks wholeheartedly toward the eschatological coming of true Reality. As Karl Barth emphatically stated, “Christianity which is not wholly and completely and without remainder eschatology has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ.” The gospel of liberation says No at the same time that it says Yes: No to the old Establishment and Yes to the new world, No to injustice and oppression and Yes to righteousness and freedom; No to dehumanizing violence and Yes to rehumanizing peace; No to life-denying death and Yes to death-denying life. We find the same gospel of liberation in Pan’s Labyrinth: No to the world of the Captain and Yes to the world of Ofelia.

Pan’s Labyrinth is finally a testament to the power of art. The old adage, “All truth is God’s truth wherever it may be found,” is nowhere more evident than here. If there is anything this profound film demonstrates, it is that when we delve wholly into story, we discover the Story; when we seek reality, we discover Reality; when we pursue truth, we discover Truth. All of this, of course, is the gift of grace. And that is precisely what Pan’s Labyrinth is: a taste of grace in an often graceless world. For this, we should be truly grateful.

Fn1. Del Toro’s other film, The Devil’s Backbone, sets up Pan’s Labyrinth historically because of its setting in the Spanish Civil War.

Fn2. The Christological parallels in Hellboy are obvious as well, but they are less developed and the incarnation is of a very different sort. Pan’s Labyrinth is more fully and profoundly a re-telling of the gospel in fairytale form.

Fn3. This false distinction between objective and subjective is precisely what Terry Gross of NPR consistently applied to the film in her interview with Guillermo del Toro—which he had to correct. Gross spoke of the conflict between the Captain and the rebels as the “reality part of the film,” and later, when del Toro rejected this statement by speaking of “the girl’s reality,” she continued to misunderstand him and talk about how we often feel the need to fabricate stories in order to get through life. This forced him to make much more explicit his rejection of the hard and fast distinction between reality and fiction. Del Toro also made the especially fascinating statement that whereas an adult “invites Jesus into her heart,” a young child “invites monsters into her heart.” There are two ways of reading this statement, as del Toro intimated. On one hand, you can view Jesus as just a subjective figment of the imagination. On the other hand, you can affirm monsters to be as real to children as Jesus is to adults. Del Toro prefers the latter interpretation.

Fn4. According to del Toro, the critical fairytales and horror films are ones that show the monsters in a favorable light and show the humans as the real monsters. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the Captain is the true monster.

Fn5. Another notable, though often unrecognized, film in this genre is In America. Finding Neverland is critical, but not realistic; that is, it posits the need for an alternative but cannot finally sustain such an alternative vision. The point of Peter Pan is that Neverland is not paradise but hell. A land where you cannot grow up is a land where you cannot mature; and thus it is finally a land where you cannot be truly human. The Narnia tales by C. S. Lewis reside somewhere between Pan’s Labyrinth and Finding Neverland—more realistic than the latter, but more escapist than the former. Compared to these other two stories, Narnia offers a truly dialectical alternative; that is, Narnia has its own autonomous existence. The world of 20th century Britain and the world of Narnia exist side-by-side with no necessary interrelation. Narnia is critical of the modern human world, but it is not realistic enough to impinge upon this world. That is, Narnia is more of an escape from the confines of modern social propriety rather than a constructive alternative which could conceivably impact how one ought to live in the world of humans. If there is such an effect, it is more accidental than necessary. Evidence of this strictly dialectical relation is confirmed by Lewis’ own admission that Narnia is not a retelling of our own world but rather an imaginative attempt to conceive of a separate autonomous cosmos in which Christ is a Lion rather than a human.

Fn6. From a theological standpoint, it is perhaps unfortunate—when reading this film Christologically—that the man who kills Ofelia, the Captain, is the very one who calls himself her “father.” For this very reason, we should be cautious about drawing the parallel too closely. Not only will do an injustice to the film; we will also do an injustice to the Christian faith. That said, we should point out that the Captain is not actually Ofelia’s father; he only claims the title, though Ofelia refuses to affirm it. We finally meet Ofelia’s father at the end of the film. An equally justified Christological reading of the film would be to see the Captain as a fictional embodiment of the Devil. Here the analogy to the Christian faith is not ideal, but it is at least a model of the atonement that finds some support in the ancient tradition.

Fn7. Del Toro: “That type of obedience, where you find refuge in the corporate, or when you find refuge in the political or religious majority, is such an absolutely despicable cowardice—the cowardice that the Captain displayed by making the others non-human so he can torture or kill them.”

Fn8. There was also a positive side to his experience of violence and evil: “[Violence] made me very conscious of dying, decay, and fragility. I think we live our lives sometimes believing we are immortal, and we’re not. And our lives actually gain more sense when we believe in pain and when we believe in mortality. I believe that it makes us better to connect with this dark side of life.”


D.W., I am going to read your review closely, but I was blown away by the length. Let me say that this is only partly a criticism: 'Cause you performed the vital function of making me feel better about some of my longer posts. :-)
Aric Clark said…
that was one hell of a long post.

I just saw the film last night and though I don't pretend to have drawn all the same theological conclusions as you, but it was an absolutely marvelous film. A truly original fairy-tale in a world that seems only to be able to rehash stories without any depth or magic. What an accomplishment.
jeltzz said…
Thank you for your detailed and insightful review (or commentary). It has brought my appreciation for the film to a new level.
Anonymous said…
Now here is a film that I have seen and enjoyed a great deal. The contrast in the film between "the real" and "the Real" reminded me very much of the same contrast in Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
Ben Myers said…
Hi David -- I'm forcing myself not to read your review, since I still haven't been able to see the film! It has just come out here on DVD, so I'll look forward to reading your review in a few days....
Anonymous said…
Good stuff...I feel like we must have some friends in common at PTS, though most of mine just graduated.
MarkC said…

I'm a bit confused by your description of Ofelia as a Christ-figure. Your key phrase here was, I think: "Ofelia elects death that life might come to others." Yet, I cannot see how Ofelia's death brought life to anyone else.

In some sense you could say that she saved the life of her brother, though not for entry into her utopian fairy world, it would seem. Yet, I don't even see how she did that.

You wrote: "Ofelia must then choose between sacrificing the life of her brother for the sake of her own immortality or sacrificing her immortality for the sake of her brother."

That's what I expected at that point in the movie, but that's not what actually happened. That's the point where I have been most confused by the movie since seeing it. The Faun made no threat to kill her brother, and she had no reason to think that he would kill her brother. He said that it would be only a drop of blood, a pin-prick in the finger... and Ofelia had no sensible reason to doubt that Faun's veracity. She defied the Faun's clear direction (not for the first time) with, as far as I can tell, no good reason (not for the first time). Her actions, primarily starting with the second task, seemed more capricious than principled.

In the end, she achieved utopia through self-sacrifice (however unnecessary the self-sacrifice may appear to have been). But she did not achieve that utopia for anyone else, so I have a hard time conceiving of her as a Christ-figure.

Along those lines, you wrote: "Ofelia’s apparently senseless death is in fact the occasion for her brother’s life and her own ascension to the right hand of her father."

It does not appear to me that Ofelia's brother's life was ever in danger. His father was certainly not going to kill him, and I see no reason to think (or for her to think) that the Faun would have been a threat. Remember that it was the Faun's advice that brought great comfort to her mother's pain, so the Faun had not shown himself to be interested in either lying to her or causing pain to those around her.

So, Ofelia's apparently senseless death seems to me to really only occasion her re-entry into the fairy world which is her true utopian home.

You wrote: "The narrator tells of a princess who incarnates herself as a young girl in order to complete a particular mission"; and, a little later: "Ofelia is the incarnation of this princess who descends from her transcendent origin ... for the purpose of fulfilling a regal mission."

Am I just remembering the movie wrongly? If I remember the story correctly, the princess escaped from her land not to fulfill some mission, but to break out and explore. Her escape into the world was an act of angst leading to rebellion, not any planned redemptive purpose. And the tasks she was given to perform, and even her eventual self-sacrifice, were not to achieve any actual end in the world of 1940's Spain, but to validate her credentials as the princess who had left home so that she could return to her utopian existence.

Did I miss something? Was the fairy princess sent into the world to accomplish some redemptive purpose, and I just completely missed that whole point in the setup? I only watched the movie once, and I don't own it, so I can't go back now and double-check that part of the setup, but I could have sworn that her escape from her fairy world was not with a purpose or mission in mind, but only for selfish exploratory desires.

I wish the story had been about an emissary from a utopian world, sent as a child into our war-torn world to conquer evil through innocence, to protect life through self-sacrifice, and in so doing to achieve redemptive change in the lives and world that she had visited. That would have been a powerful story, with a Christ-figure, and a message of the power of redemptive innocent sacrifice.

It just doesn't appear to me that Pan's Labyrinth is that movie.

Good points, Mark. I can concede some of them. I admit that I wrote this review after seeing the film once in the theaters. After seeing it again recently I would need to revise elements of the review. For starters:

1. You are right that I emphasize the redemptive aspect of Ofelia too much. I did mention in my review that she is both a figure of Christ and of the pilgrim believer. I would want to emphasize both dimensions of her identity, but lay the emphasis on the latter more than I do in the current review.

2. You are right that the princess takes human form for the purpose of exploration and curiosity, and I should have made note of this.

3. Along with the previous point, the princess did not enter the world of mortals for the purpose of fulfilling a specific mission. In fact, as the original introduction makes clear, she completely forgot her regal identity when she became a little girl.

That said, here are some rebuttal points with added clarification to help explain how I might view the film more faithfully:

1. Just because there is a Christ-figure in a film does not mean the character needs to be allegorical, such that the character's life has a one-to-one correspondence with the Christ-story found in Scripture. Most fiction artists that attempt this kind of retelling end up doing a very poor job. As I said in my review and noted above, Ofelia represents the pilgrim as much as she does Christ, and there is no clear-cut distinction between the two. As the pilgrim, she has a Christ-like influence; as a Christ-figure, she is a pilgrim on a journey.

What this means is that we ought not conform Ofelia into a preconceived mold of what a Christ-figure in film ought to accomplish or represent. We need to let the work of art present its own story, not judge the work of art by the story we might have in our minds. Del Toro is not attempting to retell the NT story in mythological form, so I don't want to do an injustice to the story he actually is telling.

That said, I would remove or change the statements in which I make it seem as if Ofelia is more of a Christ-figure than she actually is. I certainly still think she is a redemptive figure (I discuss her brother below), but I need to qualify some of my statements to demonstrate how her character also (and perhaps more importantly) represents the pilgrim seeking redemption.

2. I do think she still has a saving role in relation to her brother. Del Toro makes clear in his interviews that the faun is not a trustworthy figure; you might think he fails to show the faun's craftiness, but this is at least his intention. One of the subtle keys to this is the way the faun gains strength and youth over the course of the film. He begins very wobbly and clearly ancient, but by the end, he is walking smoothly and seems much younger. Del Toro did this intentionally to heighten the element of suspicion around him. When he finally asks for a couple drops of her brother's blood, we as viewers are supposed to feel and empathize with Ofelia's lack of trust in the faun.

Moreover, the faun aside, I still think that Ofelia's refusal to let her brother be pricked is an example of self-sacrificial love. I agree that her first disobedience of the faun's directions in the second task is a clear example of an immature capriciousness. But I think her disobedience of the faun in the final task is meant as a mature contrast to her earlier action. I think del Toro means for us to see Ofelia's growth as a moral character, whose seemingly impure rejection of the faun in the third task is actually her pure love for her brother. Thus her blood is in fact the blood of an innocent, which it wouldn't be if she were indeed still immature, capricious, and self-centered. On the contrary, by the end of the film, she is mature, principled, and focused on the other. (I say all this affirming the need to qualify my statements about Ofelia as a Christ-figure; one need not exactly represent Christ in order to be all these things.)

Furthermore, while she may not have had reason to think that her brother's life was in mortal danger (from the faun or the Captain), Ofelia had every reason to believe that her brother's life was not safe outside her grasp. Ofelia had seen the brutality of the Captain, and the faun is a member of an underworld which is not innocent; figures like the Pale Man represent a hellish dimension to the underworld that Ofelia wishes to keep her brother from at any cost. All that is to say, her decision to sacrifice herself instead of allow her brother to face any possibility of danger is, I think, an honorable choice.

3. You make a very interesting point that Ofelia gains eternal life for herself but not for anyone else. Here, again, I would wish to remember that she is a pilgrim-figure who is also at times a Christ-figure. Ofelia is not like a true incarnation of the Son in Jesus Christ. She is rather like the human person who discovers her true identity.

The story of Ofelia is a story of self-discovery in the best sense of the term: not self-discovery in a modern psychological sense, but self-discovery in the theological sense. We discover that our identity precedes; we do not make ourselves, but we truly find ourselves in Christ. Similarly, Ofelia discovers that her identity is in fact the princess. Her regal identity precedes her; she discovers it as something already true. Her mission is thus properly not one of earning her identity but rather of living in conformity with it. As the princess she must act accordingly.

The wonderful thing about this film is that Ofelia does what she feels is right, even if that means abandoning her identity. She does what must be done even if that means giving up everything for herself. But what she does not realize is that such selflessness is precisely in accordance with her identity. Her love for her brother is more in accord with her regal identity than a selfish pursuit of utopia.

This is where the Christlikeness becomes more apparent. Jesus is faithful in loving the world even if that means enduring the absence of the Father. Ofelia, in her own way, is faithful to her brother (representative, I think, of the neighbor, the church, the world) even if that means enduring a brutal death alone and in the possible absence of her own Easter. She willingly, in a sense, descends into hell, but discovers eternal joy instead.

4. Again, you are certainly right about the myth itself. The princess does not enter the world to fulfill a mission. This again, I think, is part of the pilgrim journey.

I think the pilgrim motif is actually grounded in the Platonic myth of the transmigration of souls. The Platonic element is something I did not pick up on the first time around. Essentially, a the immortal soul takes on human form, forgets everything, but through the course of human existence "recalls" the knowledge that the soul had in eternity. This is why Plato calls all knowledge recollection; it is "innate knowledge" -- knowledge that the soul takes into the world but must learn to recall. Pan's Labyrinth is more explicitly Platonic than Christian, at least in its mythical framework. The discussion of the soul throughout the film reinforces this point.

Does this mean the film has no theological basis at all? Not at all. First, it's important to remember that the Platonic notion of the soul's immortality (prior to birth) was adopted by certain Christian theologians. Most famous and important is Origen. Second, even if the mythological framework is problematic, the narrative itself and the finale of the film are most directly grounded in a Christological framework.

5. A revised and expanded review would need to discuss (1) the myth of the ignored rose told by Ofelia to her brother, (2) the role of the Captain's pocket watch, and (3) the mother's eulogy. Each of these are very important to the overall story, and I simply did not have a chance to process them properly before I wrote this review. I have a lot to say about them now, but here is not the time.

I hope these comment have been helpful.
MarkC said…

Thanks for your reply.

I didn't communicate well in my previous comment, and you corrected me, I think, quite appropriately. I felt, as you suggested Del Toro intended, empathy with Ofelia for her reluctance to let the Faun prick her brother's finger. And Ofelia certainly had deep love and a protective instinct for her brother, a love that overrode all other considerations for her, even her own deepest personal desires. I agree that that is a powerful image, and a theological one.

So, thanks for adding that clarification to my comments.

Not that it matters, but I also agree with you about the general quality of allegories. As wonderful as the Narnia stories are, the more allegorical they get, the less effective they are, as a general rule. Because of my experience there, I try to avoid direct allegories as much as possible. :)

Thinking back over the movie as a whole, it seems to me that Del Toro was depicting a contrast between blind obedience and conscientious disobedience. I can't recall now the exact dialog that gave me that impression, but I remember at the time that it stuck out to me distinctly. Did you get the same impression at all?

If that was a central theme, then it makes sense of the second test as part of the story. Ofelia disobeyed there, but it was a capricious disobedience, not a principled one... and it therefore had negative consequences. Only principled disobedience (which is actually obedience to a higher good, or from our perspective a higher Good who is God) is beneficial.

Principled disobedience and self-sacrifice for a higher good, as exemplified by the doctor and the housekeeper, and by Ofelia at the end..... contrasted against blind obedience and self-preservation, as exemplified (to some degree) by Ofelia's mother, and by the Nazi soldiers. Ofelia's character grew through the three tests, from blindly obeying the Faun and acting for her own escapism... to capriciously disobeying the Faun and suffering for it... to finally choosing to disobey the Faun on principle, choosing self-sacrifice for the good of others. At that point, she was finally following the example of the resistance fighters.

That's the rough overview of the movie as it appears to me. Did you see anything similar?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts...

Anonymous said…
Bravissimo! I'll be showing "Pan's Labyrinth in my "Shapes of Evil" seminar next term, and I'll also ask students to read your review as well as the conversation between you and markc. Well done!

You're absolutely right about the theme of obedience and disobedience running throughout the film. I wish I had picked up on that much earlier. This is most explicitly reinforced by the doctor, after he gives a lethal shot to the soldier to prevent any more torture. Captain Vidal asks why he did not obey his command. The doctor responds that such blind obedience is only something a person like the Captain could do. This is definitely something I would need to discuss in a future article on this film (something which I am currently working on for publication in a journal).

I think the film is most theologically significant in its attempt to communicate a "beautiful anarchy" against the Establishment, in which the film also deconstructs the fabricated, illusionary nature of our modern world. I would want to focus the theological attention on this aspect of the film. While there are certainly Christological and Platonic elements in the film, the heart of the film is really found in its resistance to the structures of evil that pervade our present existence. In the midst of this violent world, Ofelia (as well as Mercedes and Dr. Ferreiro, in their own ways) is a rebellious figure who learns when and where and against whom it is appropriate to be disobedient. In her innocence and peacefulness, Ofelia represents a kind of "beautiful anarchy" against the Establishment.

This is why a child is the perfect character to embody this anarchy, because children are often innocently rebellious -- they defy the rules without the maliciousness and intentionality one finds in an anarchic adult. The child's curiosity is at the same time the occasion for breaking the boundaries and barriers of the Captain's world. Her complete willingness to do whatever she must do, no matter what the risk, is indicative of her innocence and (righteous) naivete. She is perfectly ready to walk right into the room of the Captain or descend into a dark labyrinth.

In the course of the film, of course, she must learn to train her rebellious spirit. Rather than capriciously break the rules of the faun (for the sake of her stomach), she learns to defy the rules of the Captain (for the sake of her brother). She matures and thus learns when and where "anarchy" is an appropriate response. In her rebellion against the Captain -- her anarchy against evil -- Ofelia is the most Christ-like. It is her rejection of violence and her anarchic love for others that most embodies the mission and character of Christ. In a sense, then, she represents the pilgrim in the way she grows and matures through various trials, but she represents Christ in the final moments of her life.

I suppose Ofelia represents the true Christian who is conformed to Christ by the Spirit through the process of sanctification in this life -- a conformity that must await until our own death and resurrection to be complete. Such sanctification is not measurable and is not without major setbacks. We cannot scientifically measure how much we have matured in Christ since last month or last year. But we can wait patiently and confidently in the knowledge that God is indeed at work in our lives, shaping us into the person of Christ -- into the person we already are in Christ and will somebody become. Ofelia represents this person -- the Christian pilgrim -- who enters the world with a particular identity already, but who struggles through life and only at the end realizes her conformity into the princess. Before she can reach eternal life, though, she must be prepared to walk through the valley of death. Like Ofelia, we too are called to carry our crosses and be willing to suffer and die, not for ourselves but for others. In this marvelous film, Ofelia represents the journey of the one called to embody Christ in this world. Pan's Labyrinth is, in a sense, a kind of modern-day Pilgrim's Progress.
MarkC said…

That's really well said. I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms, and it's helpful to look at it from that perspective. Thanks!