Pan’s Labyrinth is as much of a fantastic fairy tale as it is a story about how fairy tales clash with fascism of the post-Civil War Spain. It is seemingly far too often that fantastic films are a disappointment, by patronizing the viewer, making no statement about the real world and is merely a form of youthful escapism. Director Guillermo Del Toro provides a much needed serious fantasy. The film is also special in the fact there is not a national identity attached to it.
It is not a national product because of the cross-national production companies, director, and actors. The displacement of a national identity markets the notion of Spanish as a brand, to anyone within the Spanish language (Sanchez). It is not bound to just the language of Spanish and Spain, because Hollywood marketed it to American audiences. While the film is set in Spain it does not necessarily focus on Francisco Franco’s idea of fascism, because it does not belong to any particular national cinema. However, Pan’s Labyrinth is still a post-national Spanish work.
It is a film that is similar to that of Kurosawa as it attempts to acknowledge a society’s vulnerability to evil and its redemption through art, in particular to Pan’s Labyrinth, the art of fantastic stories (Observer). The narrative is set in 1944 Spain near an old mill in the rural mountains. The main conflict is between Franco’s fascist force and the resistance that opposes him. Our protagonist is Ofelia, a little girl with endless curiosity and an armful of books. Her father was killed before the movie sometime during the war, now her mother married Captain Vidal to try an escape the squalor and hardship faced by post-war Spain.
Captain Vidal is positioned in the woods because he is hunting the resistance. He desires more than anything for his son to be born in the Spain from Franco’s vision. In his attempts to secure this future, he uses ruthless brutality to extort information and to set a precedent. From the moment Ofelia and Captain Vidal are acquainted she immediately appears to have no affection for her new father and rejects him. The two sit in stark contrast to each other, and this is notable with barely seeing the two occupy the same space.
This sharing of a space is both metaphorical and physically seen in the film as there are not many scenes featuring both Ofelia and Captain Vidal. Living in a hostile home she creates a fantasy world in which she is a princess, forming parallels her strife and the struggles of the resisting forces against Captain Vidal, and Franco. The fantasy world which she creates is intended to substitute an isolated instance of the atrocities and repression that she is seeing. The fairy tale she creates is symbolic of a social order dominated by Fascism (Tsuei).
Two ideas predominantly are displayed that are at constant odds with each other, and does not require much extrapolation from the viewer. It is clear to see, control and permanence are the core ideas Guillermo Del Toro displayed in this film (Walsh). The theme of control is represented by time, religion and ritual. This is reflected in Captain Vidal and his crusade to squash the resistance. On the other hand permanence is represented by fantasy and the story-telling and is reflected in Ofelia and her fairy tale. Fascism is certainly apparent as a military power aligned with an oligarchy being defied by repressed.
It should be noted that the film places an emphasis on the idea of control with the actions of sadistic Captain Vidal (Sanchez). The film portrays the Captain as struggling with himself and the memory of his father. He carries his father’s pocket watch at all times, because it is a permanent memory of when his father died in battle. His fascination with the time of his father’s death harkens to Fascism as a culture of death and a masculine adoration of war (Sanchez). Captain Vidal’s obsession with time is known as the “Cronus Complex,” Cronus being the Greek Titan who represents time and death (VC).
His acceptance that he, and all living things, are just to die, is very much a part of him. His entire existence can be boiled down to the story of his father, who died and broke his pocket watch. Meticulously he tends to his father’s pocket watch in order to preserve it for just the right moment. “The only decent way to die” Vidal believes is to die in war doing something honorable as he charged uphill into resistance gunfire, clutching his precious watch. He is trying to create a mythology of “heroism” for the “New Spain” he desperately wants a son to born into (Bond). This becomes very clear in the important dinner scene.
Captain Vidal interests go beyond that of the economics of the oligarchy. His denial of having his father’s watch makes it blatant that he has his own repressed dependence on masculine glorification of war and his self-censorship of emotion. Portraying Captain Vidal in this manner leads to a viewer to buy into historical Fascism (Sanchez). Additionally, the representation of Captain Vidal links brutality and repression with Fascism. While the individuals associated with Fascism may practice violence, it is not the ideology alone that motivates Fascism. The acts of a few individuals cannot explain the entire State’s recourse to violence.
Violence is not the only way power is demonstrated. After the war, the Military and the powerful few enlisted the help of the Spanish Catholic Church, in another persecution. The Catholic Church supported Franco’s Fascism because he was a defender of Roman Catholicism post World War II. With the allegiance between the military power and spiritual leadership the Fascist monopoly was born. It was during the dinner scene as well that Guillermo Del Toro ties in an implication of the dominance of religion, in particular the Catholic Church. A priest is seated next to Captain Vidal, and agrees blindly to everything the Captain has to say.
He even goes and has a religious comment that makes seem apathetic. Later in the scene Vidal is expressing how all the rebels need to be exterminated and yet again the priest chimes in with pious comment, “God has already saved their souls, what happens to their bodies hardly matters to Him” leading the viewer to question the nature of the priest and his dogmatic anti-human nature. He demonstrates the idea that one is just a body in the system and that in death, they have no purpose, and therefore the body is left to rot. Proper etiquette requires a very ritualistic approach to living and nobody is more than Captain Vidal.
The moment he and Ofelia met he disciplined her on the proper way of shaking hands. He lives a lifestyle of strict conformity and it is only reinforced by his daily routines and obsessions (Walsh). Cleaning his boots until they gleam and crackle on entrance only plays into being a cog in the masculine war machine. Captain Vidal is the epitome of rigid conformity and tradition which is symbolized by his handshake with Ofelia and the pocket watch. Examining the other equally important aspect of the film, the fantasies, it is clear that each is an allegory for Fascism and the parallels the events of the film.
The first story she told her unborn brother about the rose alludes to oppressed existence of the people in Fascist Spain. It is made clear that the thorns around the rose are the Fascist forces hindering the passage to a democratic future. The important dinner scene is later perfectly reflected in Ofelia’s second task. The monster at the head of the table is Captain Vidal. Ofelia must exist by the rules of the Pale Man’s lair just as she must adhere to the rules established by her new step-father. The parallelism between Captain Vidal and the Pale Man can be summed up to senseless evil violence, irrationally killing innocent people.
Both the fantasy world and reality are governed heavily and regimented by time as Ofelia only has a short time in the lair. While Ofelia is in the lair of the Pale Man there is a lot of cryptic religious symbolism painted on the walls. Some of the images depicted are reminiscent of “La Via Crucis,” which is a prominent feature in the paintings on the walls of Roman Catholic churches (Walsh). Moreover, the lair of the Pale Man closely resembles the architecture of a church vaulted ceilings, Doric columns and Romanesque paintings.
With all of the juxtaposed imagery and symbolism in relation to post-war Spain, it leaves one to wonder what it is trying to say. It is not a national product rather a stylized recounting of a painful memory in Spain’s past left to the tradition of storytelling. Even at the end of the film, Guillermo Del Toro gave an honorable remembrance, the one flower blossoming on the tree, to the proponents of Franco’s Fascism who had to go into hiding after the fall of fascism. For a foreign audience the film can be used as a cautionary tale of the dangers of a powerful few.
It also serves as a motivation for any nation undergoing its own political revolution. For Spain this film serves as an allegory of political liberation. Ofelia’s mother serves as Spain trusting in this strong man only to condemn herself and her daughter to terrible hardships and tremendous agony. Everyone in the film has to face this agony, whether it be suffering from the repression or dealing with the guilt of exerting such repression. Ofelia is able to escape such agonies by believing in a utopian future where she, the people, are not repressed. The power of the film came from the trauma experienced by Spain and a painful memory.