Blood of an Innocent
“A long time ago, in the Underground Realm,” murmurs the narrator of Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno), “There lived a princess who dreamt of a human world.” As she envisions it, this world is filled with beauty, with blue skies and soft breezes. As she dreams, the camera pulls away from her fallen form, to glide through a dark blue world, where castles are built into underground cavern walls and the little girl lies dreaming—and bleeding.
The start of Guillermo del Toro’s movie sets up the girl’s beginning and end. As 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) finds her way up from the underground into the imagined human world, she forgets where she came from. If she first appears in a disturbing fairy tale, in the underground, the upper realm, Spain 1944, is no less alarming. Ofelia is traveling with her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), en route to her new stepfather’s military outpost in Northern Spain. Capitán Vidal (Sergi López) is a monster, almost literally, a stanch Falangist who means to hold his position for Franco and then pass on his name and legacy to the son Carmen carries. Ofelia’s existence is only troublesome.
And yet, Ofelia’s is not dictated by the Capitán. She pursues her own way, seeking her own fairy tale destiny. Indeed, almost as soon as she arrives at Vidal’s outpost with her mother (“15 minutes late,” he notes, his pocket watch ticking loudly), Ofelia discovers the labyrinth that will lead her on a journey deep inside herself. Led by a large CGIed bug that transforms into a fluttering fairy, Ofelia wanders away from the sharply efficient greeting scene (Vidal deposits Carmen into a wheelchair, insisting that she preserve the baby inside her at any cost to her desire or integrity), to lay eyes on the labyrinth, only to be recovered—for the moment—by Vidal’s housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú).
If the Capitán is categorically hateful and tyrannical, Mercedes is his opposite, warm and noble, determined to help the girl survive her new unfriendly surroundings. She’s also secretly working against Vidal, affiliated with the Republican guerillas (maquis) hiding out in the woods. Mercedes maintains her cover, as does Carmen’s doctor, Ferreiro (Álex Angulo); they look after their official charges, but secretly slipping information and medical services to their colleagues in the forest, despising Vidal and pitying Carmen while fighting for their country’s freedom.
Ofelia’s story rather parallels Mercedes’, though it takes a fantastic shape. Her story is about stories: fairy and folk tales, legends, and myths. As she tells her unborn brother stories about the past/war (“a sad, faraway land”), she opens the way into her own present, overseen by the Faun (Doug Jones, Abe Sapien in Hellboy) who oversees the labyrinth (he’s not precisely “Pan,” named in the title’s inaccurate English translation). The Faun identifies her as the Princess Moanna (“You were not born of man,” he growls, “It was the moon that bore you”), insisting that she is meant to return to the underground and help free her people. But first, as this is a fairy tale, she must prove herself. He hands her a volume with blank pages, The Book of Crossroads, declaring that it will show her future, though she must follow its instructions to discover whether she is worthy of being the princess.
The instructions (which appear as Ofelia touches the book’s pages, connecting her material and dream realms in the most visceral manner) include the sorts of tasks heroes must perform in order to free a people or claim authority. And Ofelia is a wonderful hero, at once childlike and shrewd, imperfect and courageous, utterly unlike most kids in movies. And she’s quite unable to keep herself from her adventure, even when she knows she should be cautious. When Carmen bestows on a beautiful green party dress, telling her not to dirty it, Ofelia immediately wears it while following the book’s instructions. Soon enough, she’s crawling through tunnel full of mud, bugs, and rocks, where she meets the giant toad from whom she’s supposed to retrieve a key: it grunts and stinks and generally presents a horrible sight. “Hola,” she says, quietly. “I’m Princess Moanna and I’m not afraid of you.” It spits yellow slime on her, along with the key, which she happily brings back to the house, only to be chastised for what she’s done to her dress: it’s a filthy, gooey ruin.
Ofelia’s audacity enables her to survive any number of encounters during Pan’s Labyrinth: aside from the Faun, a clattering, sly, and never quite trustworthy figure, she also meets a Pale Man (also Jones) beneath Vidal’s house, all saggy skin and jutting bones, his eyes on a plate on the table where he sits, unmoving, until she awakens him and he takes after her, his eyes now inserted into the palms of his hands in the palms of his hands, held up as he staggers after Ofelia, a menace you wouldn’t have imagined, and yet there he is.
Conceived as a sort of “distaff” companion piece to del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del diablo), it takes up the time in Spanish history just following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939, the setting for the first film). Vidal pursues a “new, clean Spain,” describing his vision as the camera pushes in, just over a table full of fine food and crystal, a fireplace fully ablaze behind him. His dinner guests (other loyalist officers and their wives) grow increasingly uncomfortable as he speaks: the Republicans are “mistaken,” he says, in their belief that everyone is equal. “The war is over and we won… And if we need to kill every one of these vermin to settle it, then we’ll kill them all, and that’s that.”
Vidal makes a formidable fascist, forbidding in his uniform, dictating terms within his home and outside (his brutal murders of suspected rebels even take his troops aback, and a scene where he stitches himself following a knife wound is utterly unnerving). In sharp contrast to Ofelia, he’s a blatant coward. And yet he is also haunted by a story, less wondrous than hers, but similarly foreboding: his father was a general who died courageously on the battlefield, and the son is repeatedly challenged to live up to such legacy. Vidal comes to despise Ofelia not only for the distraction she provides her mother, but also for her determination and selflessness. For her part, the girl develops a canny sort of trust and distrust of her stepfather, understanding his power (when she finds her mother bleeding, she calls for his help) as well as his malevolence.
As both resist the Capitán, Ofelia’s unfailing belief in her other realm suggests that Mercedes’ faith in the rebels’ cause is similarly fictional and real, at the same time. (Mercedes’ devotion to her brother [Roger Casamajor], a rebel leader, anticipates Ofelia’s to her own brother, about to be born). Their stories intersect but also diverge, the film offering both fantasy and history in its evocation of a past that presses on our own present.
“Soon you’ll see that life is not like fairy tales,” Carmen sighs. But life is much like fairy tales, where forces deemed good and evil struggle and individuals find themselves only when they lose their conditions and expectations. Exposed to brutality, expected to deliver the “blood of an innocent” to fulfill her destiny, Ofelia remains resolute and self-knowing. Indeed, as her belief in herself comes full circle, as she discovers her crucial mythological role, Ofelia becomes more real than her gorgeous allegory can bear.