Fairy-tales are one of childhood’s most time honored and universal traditions. It is through these tales that children are exposed to the traditions of the past while learning vital lessons for their present. Although these tales are aimed children, they often contain moral messages that carry even more resonance as children reach adulthood. In the 2007 drama Pan’s Labyrinth, the traditional fairy tale is used to weave a surreal story that serves as a historical allegory, as the fairy tale daydreams of an imaginative girl are used to highlight the all too real horrors of her life in post-Civil War Spain.
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The story begins with ten year old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her recently remarried and now pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), arriving at their new home in the Spanish countryside to join Ofelia’s stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). While Carmen insists that the remarriage was the best decision for the entire family, Ofelia quickly learns otherwise when she meets her stepfather, who proves to be far more ruthless and terrifying than any of the fictional monsters in her books. A loyal devotee of Franco’s fascist regime, Vidal takes a sadistic pleasure in hunting down and exterminating the remaining remnants of the republican rebels. Although he runs his household with the same tyrannical zeal as his regiment, Carmen remains convinced that life with her new husband is still a better alternative to the merciless streets of post-war Spain. As a result, Ofelia’s only true ally in her new home is kind but resilient housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who leads a double life as a rebel spy by feeding information to the resistance group led by her brother. Surrounded by fear and violence, Ofelia retreats to the fantastic world of her fairy tales, reimagining herself and those around her as characters in an epic quest.
Released in Spain in 2006, Pan’s Labyrinth was met with almost universal acclaim across the globe. While the film’s broad appeal is surprising considering its historical subject matter, the electrifying performances and breathtaking effects successfully bring both the gritty reality of fascist Spain and the surreal world of Ofelia’s imagination to vibrant life. In its many depictions of post-war Spain the film portrays the poverty and violence that comprised life under Franco with an unflinching realism that draws viewers into Ofelia’s harsh reality. Similarly, the film also keeps viewers engaged in her fictional journey through spectacular effects that bring the characters and obstacles that she encounters to life with by turns mystifying and horrifying detail. The cast turn in uniformly superb performances, as they successfully weave both tales. Ariadna Gil is appropriately world weary as the defeated Carmen and her resignation stands in excellent contrast to the determined idealism that Alex Angulo brings to republican agent Doctor Ferreiro. Maribel Verdu captures the steely resilience and nurturing kindness of Mercedes in a way that ensures that she remains a three dimensional character rather than a heroic symbol. Similarly Sergi Lopez portrays the vile Captain Vidal with a pathos that ensures he remains a realistic, if despicable, person rather than a caricature of a villain. Even amongst an immensely talented adult cast, Ivana Baquero steals the film as she captures Ofelia’s waif-like innocence and maturity that belies her years. Baquero infuses her performance with an intelligence, depth, and nuance that many an adult actress could learn, and lends an essential authenticity to both of Ofelia’s storylines.
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While the story is brought to life through a combination of excellent performances and dazzling special effects, the key to the film’s worldwide success lies largely in its ability to tell that story on two levels with equal depth and nuance. The scenes involving Ofelia’s daily life resonate on both a personal and political level as each of its characters clash over their conflicting vision of a better life, and more crucially a better Spain. For example, to Vidal and his men their sadistic behavior is entirely justifiable as a means to achieving a unified nation. Similarly, to Mercedes and her fellow rebels, their defiance of the fascist government is part of a heroic effort to regain Spain’s freedom. Finally for war-weary Carmen, like so many others in post-war Spain, the only option is to resign herself to the new regime and leave the ideals and memories of the past behind. It is through this interaction of characters across both the social and political spectrum that director Guillermo del Toro successfully explores the political and social unrest that fueled the Spanish Civil War and lingered after the fascist Nationalists claimed victory. Meanwhile, Ofelia follows the example of the adults around her by seeking her own vision of a better world, albeit one that exists entirely in her mind. On the surface, the merging of this complex historical drama with a children’s fantasy would seem an odd fit at best and absurd at worst. In del Toro’s skilled hands, however, the two tales work together to form a more complex and emotionally resonant whole as the horrors of Ofelia’s daily struggles to survive fuel her imaginary quest. Although the monsters and obstacles that she faces throughout her fantastic journey cleverly echo those that she encounters in reality, the defining aspect of her imaginary journey is its end goal; to achieve redemption for herself and those around her. In this way, her imaginary struggle directly mirrors that of Spain as a nation coming to terms with a bloody past and uncertain future and serves as a reminder of the high cost of war.
Historical drama, fantasy, and political allegory are just a few phrases to describe the intricate maze that is Pan’s Labyrinth. Through its combined superb cast, visionary special effects, and captivating script the film tells of a nation engulfed in the turmoil of poverty and war and a young girl’s struggle to create her own light amidst the darkness surrounding her. For a journey into the psyche of the human mind, as well as into one of the most complex eras in modern history, look no further than the twists and turns of Pan’s Labyrinth.
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