By BRIAN BELAK
A child’s view of the world, with the presence of magic and wonder, can be very different from the view of an adult who has long since left such magic behind. The power of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on May 8, rests in writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s ability to understand and contrast this child’s view with a real, hard world that has no room for illusion.
After a prelude describing the fairy tale of a Princess Moanna of the underworld, stuck living among mortals, the film opens in the Spanish countryside, 1944, where eleven-year-old Ofelia is on her way with her pregnant mother to the residence of Captain Vidal, her new stepfather. Unhappy with this situation (Vidal is clearly a cruel man), Ofelia takes refuge following a fairy into a labyrinth in the woods, where she meets a faun who tells her she is actually Princess Moanna. Once Ofelia completes the three tasks the faun gives her, she will leave the mortal world and rejoin her real father in the underworld.
This delving into the fantasy world allows for del Toro’s vivid imagination to explode onto the screen in truly awe-inspiring ways. The faun, inspired by del Toro’s visions of a faun from his own childhood, is far from the popular depiction of a jovial half-man, half-goat, instead seeming rather sinister with his immense height, hissing voice, and gnarled limbs. Del Toro’s faun is ancient, older than the oldest forest, and fully embodies this sense of earthen decay as a result.
The most powerful aspect of the faun, along with the other creatures Ofelia meets as she completes her tasks, is how real it feels alongside Ofelia. Although the film uses CGI occasionally, large-scale creatures like the faun are the result of extensive make-up and animatronics, lending their presence actual weight and substance. Because they all seem so real, it further blends the distinction between reality and fantasy, making it intentionally difficult to tell them apart.
Alongside these explorations of fantasy lies the framing story of World War II in Spain and Vidal fighting the rebels who oppose the Fascist regime. Vidal’s housekeeper, Mercedes, secretly helps the rebels, establishing a subplot of her eluding Vidal and his eventually finding out. Because Vidal is so occupied with these events, he gives little to no attention to Ofelia or her mother, declaring outright that he only wants the son that his new wife will give him.
This is a harsh world for Ofelia to live in, so when she finds a flying insect in the woods, it is an easy jump to imagine it as a fairy coming to guide her to a magical land away from Vidal. The faun further cements this fantasy, promising permanent escape to a place where she is not only free of Vidal, but also actual royalty. Since there is evidence in the film that the fantasy elements are not real (in fact, at one point Vidal sees her talking to nothing instead of the faun that she sees), it remains entirely possible that all of the fantasy is merely her creation as a form of escape.
Pan’s Labyrinth makes most effective use of this possibility by never answering the question definitively. Vidal’s inability to see the faun could just be because he’s evil and not part of the magical world. On the other side, some fantasy elements have real-world effects, like the mandrake root that heals Ofelia’s mother and then hurts her when it is itself hurt.
Therefore, when the film ends, it’s up to the viewer to decide whether the faun and the underworld fantasy were real, or merely an invention of Ofelia’s to provide an escape from the horrors of her reality. Where you land depends on your own personality, but the fact that both are kept intact reveals the depth of del Toro’s ability to understand a child’s point of view in a violent world run exclusively by adults.
For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.