Pans Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) (2006)

As her belief in herself comes full circle, as she discovers her crucial mythological role as it exists alongside her role alongside her mother, Ofelia becomes more real than her gorgeous allegory can bear.

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Sergi López, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdú, Álex Angulo, Roger Casamajor, Sebastián Haro
Distributor: Optimum Releasing
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Picturehouse
First date: 2006
UK Release Date: 2006-11-24 (Limited release)
US Release Date: 2006-12-29 (Limited release)

+ A Symbol of Transition: Interview with Guillermo del Toro

"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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Forty years after its initial release, one of the defining albums of US punk rock finally gets the legacy treatment it deserves.

If you ever want to start a fistfight in a group of rock history know-it-alls, just pop this little question: "Was it the US or the UK who created punk rock?" Within five minutes, I guarantee there'll be chairs flying and dozens of bloodstained Guided By Voices T-shirts. One thing they'll all agree on is who gave punk rock its look. That person, ladies, and gentlemen is Richard Hell.

Keep reading... Show less

Tokyo Nights shines a light on the roots of vaporwave with a neon-lit collection of peak '80s dance music.

If Tokyo Nights sounds like a cheesy name for an album, it's only fitting. A collection of Japanese city pop from the daring vintage record collectors over at Cultures of Soul, this is an album coated in Pepto-Bismol pink, the peak of saccharine '80s dance music, a whole world of garish neon from which there is no respite.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.