When we are born, are our minds blank slates? It is an appealing notion—coming into the world with no preconceptions or biases—because it plays to our idea of free will and the autonomy of the mind. However, when we dig into the depths of our minds, we realize the power of our biological proclivities breaks the illusion of choice. We are slaves to the nature of the previous generations. Much like genes, ideas can be passed to our offspring. We bury these stories in our ancestral unconscious as a unique way for us to express our instinctive humanity. We tell stories as a caution, warning the next generation of our shortcomings; we tell stories to explore our biggest fears: loss, grief, death, even life; but most of all, we tell stories for entertainment. There are very few feelings that can trump the mystery, joy, and adrenaline captured by a well-spun tale. Guillermo del Toro’s dark parable Pan’s Labyrinth is an exceptional example of storytelling. Not only is it entertaining, but it is also an exercise in exploring the loss of innocence and the strength of cognitive illusions. Del Toro filters his fairy tale through the simplicity of archetypes, pushing Ofelia’s journey into the depths of the mind and illustrating how our mental biases can distort the filter of reality.
From the opening of the film, the audience is introduced to a girl who favors the fantastical. Most of Ofelia’s time is spent in rumination on tales of peculiar fairies, grotesque creatures, and harrowing adventure. There is good reason for such an imagination: she is a child of war, living much of what should be her most endearing years in chaos and uncertainty because of Francoist Spain. Because of this, Ofelia finds comfort in the fables and easily blends reality with the sensational to preserve her innocence a little while longer. She imagines a different life, one where she is a princess who has wandered too far from home. Through the completion of three tasks, Ofelia will be able to cross the barrier into a forgotten kingdom. It is, however, with each task completed that reality seeps through the cracks of her imagination.
Infancy is a pivotal time of our lives. Early childhood development undergirds much of our adult life, laying out the foundation for either a well-adjusted existence or the first step to a life of disarray. Regardless of which path we find ourselves on, there is always the temptation to retreat when the road becomes bumpy. The first task is an introduction into Ofelia’s desire for security and comfort, or a return to her mother’s womb. Ofelia finds her way to a withering fig tree. Split down the middle, its branches curl in a vaguely uterine way, leaving the viewer with an image reminiscent of fallopian tubes. Paralleling Alice’s descent down the rabbit hole, Ofelia climbs through the hollowed trunk to find a toad dwelling in the base of the tree.
Because of the amount of offspring toads can produce, they often double as a symbol of fertility in mythology. However, in the world of Pan’s Labyrinth, the toad is a parasite, sucking the life from a once beautiful tree. As Ofelia’s descent can be seen as a return to her mother, the viewer is left wondering if the toad is how Ofelia perceives her yet-to-be born brother—nothing more than a fleshy little leech who is slowly killing the one beautiful consistency in Ofelia’s life. Like most children, she views her parent through the lens of idolatry and divinity. Ofelia’s mother is elevated to a picturesque version of the sacred feminine in her adolescent eyes, and she cannot bear to see this stranger inside her mother. Due to the confrontation with the toad, Ofelia is forced to challenge her fears of losing her mother’s affection, or worse, her mother’s likely death.
Like most sibling rivalries, the first child has replacement anxiety, a fear that can result in an overall uneasiness regarding their idea of a distinct self. The initial task of returning to the womb and ultimately finding rebirth is an important first step in our heroine’s journey because it represents her desire for an identity of her own. For most of the film, Ofelia’s real-world interactions are punctuated by shame and oppression, so accepting the persona of Princess Moanna is an awakening in Ofelia’s individuality. Similarly, the second task provides our heroine with introspection, albeit something much more enigmatic and daunting than the toad.
Hollywood and its audience has a somewhat sordid affair with monsters. While we love the adrenaline a good horror film can provide, the underlying motivation to our fascination with the appalling is death. Monsters are meant to remind us of our mortality, as they often provide a reflective glance into ephemerality. It is with the introduction of the Pale Man in the second task that our heroine contemplates her own death.
There are some interesting parallels between the Pale Man and Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s stepfather. The second task, in this respect, is a dive into the depths of Ofelia’s subconscious. As the Faun warns her, “You’re going to a very dangerous place, so be careful. The thing that slumbers there, it is not human.” During this second undertaking, her mind offers a grim fantasy, one where the Pale Man, a creature who feeds on the innocent and helpless, is a surrogate for Ofelia’s stepfather. The Pale Man is the undiluted personification of Vidal’s inhumanity. Even his lair mirrors Vidal’s dining room, complete with a feast that any child would find irresistible.
Being set in post-civil war Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth examines the nationwide famine the country faced. During this time, the food was controlled by the government and rations were extremely limited. Families of the middle and lower classes starved, while those in power never went without food. This is most likely why Ofelia finds the large grapes so appealing.
Ignoring the warnings of the Faun, Ofelia cannot resist taking from the feast on the Pale Man’s table. This awakens the monster from his slumber, endangering Ofelia and the fairies. In this particular scene, the Pale Man rips apart two of the three fairies accompanying Ofelia on the journey, which marks a turning point in the film, which signifies the death of her fantasy. The Pale Man accomplishes what Vidal and most of the authoritative figures have tried to do for greater portion of her life. The entire cognitive illusion is shredded in the teeth of the monster.
The final task comes with a grand realization for Ofelia: death is not something to fear. After returning from the Pale Man’s lair, Ofelia is confronted by the Faun and is reprimanded for not heeding his warning. This offers ostensibly one of the most important conversations of the film. Angered by the death of the two fairies, the Faun tells Ofelia, “You broke the rules and can never return. You and your spirit will remain among the humans. You will age like them, die like them, your memory will fade and we will all vanish with it.” The Faun’s words reflect how Ofelia’s perception has changed. For most of the film, Ofelia spends her time in the shadows, doing everything she can to stay hidden from the Captain. However, her identity begins surfacing through disobedience. With breaking the rules of the Faun, Ofelia is forced to confront her completely normal existence. She is not special. She is not Princess Moanna. And she will die one day, being forgotten by all of those who came before and after her.
In this sense, the final task of retrieving her brother is Ofelia’s loss of innocence. With the death of her mother, Ofelia sheds her fantasy, realizing that our connections are one of the only things that give our life meaning. The physical existence that has been closed off from Ofelia comes pouring back in, and she knows that she must save her brother from the grotesque sensibilities of the Captain. Stealing her brother, Ofelia heads to the center of the labyrinth, to the center of her mind. Each step taken breaks away pieces of the fantasy. Guillermo del Toro illustrates this through his use of color. There are a few different palettes employed throughout the film, but the most striking is when analyzing the colors for the real world versus the fantastical one. Del Toro paints with blues, greys, and darker tones for reality. In contrast, we see gold, amber, and vivid reds for Ofelia’s fantasy. Her imagination offers a color scheme that is a lot warmer and more inviting than the cool hues of Spain. With this in mind, we, as the viewers, see the colors of her fantasy seep into reality, offering a counterpoint to the cold world her stepfather built. Each explosion offers a brilliant cloud of red and gold insubordination, lighting up the drab night sky and breathing life into the people of Spain. Conversely, this moment of freedom is Ofelia’s last. As she lay dying, Ofelia finds herself in Moanna’s Kingdom, reunited with her mother and true father. In these final moments, just as with most of her life, she clings to the idea of a fairy tale to help her cope with the unknown.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a film of polarity: it illustrates the stark contrast between our deepest desires and the pains of reality. Through cognitive illusion and the power of myth, Guillermo del Toro explores some of the most burdensome questions humanity has to offer—identity, loss, and meaning. The result is a poignant hero’s journey that appeals to the simplicity of our archetypal subconscious, reminding us that while magic is an appealing notion, we cannot run away from reality.