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“..to talk about monsters, we need to fabricate monsters of our own, and parables do that for us.” – Guillermo Del Toro winning the BAFTA for Best Director in 2018
It is absolutely no secret that Guillermo Del Toro has a soft spot for monsters. In a 2016 televised tour of his house on Conan, viewers are greeted into his home by the grotesque, gigantic face of Frankenstein’s monster, offered tea by a skeleton, and watch television with a possessed Linda Blair. Del Toro embraces his fearsome housemates with open arms, the same attitude displayed in his Best Picture-winning film The Shape of Water the following year. However, it is not monsters that take us through the narrative of his films, but rather the “pure” – the meek, innocent outcasts that act as the protagonist.
No film of Del Toro’s displays this clearer than Pan’s Labyrinth, a disturbingly dark fairy tale set in the very real world of post-Civil War Spain in 1944. Ofelia is a quiet, introverted girl no older than ten, who would rather read her children’s fantasy novels than pretend to enjoy the company of her mother’s new husband and Falganist Captain occupying the area in the hunt for rebels. Led by a fairy (seen as an insect to the adults) to a faun, Ofelia is promised that if she fulfils her tasks, she will be granted her rightful throne of Princess Moanna of the underworld. During this mission, the figures of the fantasy world become increasingly interwoven with what is perceived by the other characters to be the “real” world of fascist-occupied Spain, all through the point of view of Ofelia. Clearly, Guillermo Del Toro thinks that there’s a unique sentiment that a child – equipped with the unsullied attachment to fairy tale stories – possesses, and that voice is the key to understanding our world.
In a promotional interview for Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro states the fantastical worlds Ofelia believes in was not taught to her by fairy tale books or the few Disney adaptations out at that time, but “going back to the belly of her mother”. Ofelia, the only child in the film, retains her childhood innocence in direct contrast to her fascist regime surroundings. Even her own doting mother berates her for reading fantasy novels and encourages her to form relationships in the real world instead. Not fully immersed in these very adult surroundings, Ofelia possesses a unique vision to everyone else, displayed when she manages to open the labyrinth. Unlike everyone else, Ofelia sees a nearby insect as a fairy, following the fairy to a sculpture only she has noticed is broken, and by fixing it has opened the labyrinth, furthermore, creating a new form of hope and resistance in this world. In the adult world, Ofelia only has an affinity with two other people – her mother and Mercedes, the housekeeper. Being her only blood relative, Ofelia is deeply comforted by the presence of her mother the same way most children are. For her, a mother is the source of truth, wisdom and escapism that she associates with fairy tales. Explicit references to fairy tales are made when Ofelia touches her mother’s pregnant stomach, where she first learns of the tale of Princess Moanna and the exchange with her unborn brother that grants her the right to that throne. Mercedes is similar to a mother figure for Ofelia, especially after her mother’s death, and is the most similar to her, being one of the largest revolutionary forces in the fight against Vidal, who has literally and metaphorically been “blinding” his counterparts. When Ofelia asks Mercedes if she believes in fairies, she replies, “I used to”, thus able to understand purity in the face of corruption.
Whether or not fairies, fauns, or any of the creatures we see Ofelia interact with actually exist in the story, as opposed to a figment of her imagination, is not important to the narrative. What is important is that these ideas help the young protagonist understand the more “adult” figures in Falganist Spain. It is a deliberate choice of Guillermo Del Toro to showcase the similarities of the fairy tale monsters and the monsters of totalitarianism. The Pale Man’s disturbing and wicked nature, guarding a “feast”, juxtaposed with a pile of forgotten children’s shoes (strikingly similar to the piles of shoes displayed in places devastated by war, such as concentration camps) directly mirror Captain Vidal’s tyranny. The Faun is charismatic and enticing, but always retains the upper hand in the same way fascism does. Ultimately, these ideas allow Ofelia to understand violence, Pan’s Labyrinth is in some ways a coming of age story, with the film stopping short of Ofelia’s full transition into an adult and loss of childhood innocence. While following this mythical quest, Ofelia learns the disobedience, compassion and resistance that will make the fairy tale and fascist worlds collide in the climax of the film – where she must choose between sacrificing her baby brother at the request of the Faun – or handing him over to Vidal.
In her own death, Ofelia prevents herself from maturing into the totalitarian environment and becoming an apprentice to Captain Vidal, her now-guardian after the death of her mother. By refusing to sacrifice her brother, Ofelia herself has “birthed” a generation that will one day grow up to overthrow fascism in Spain. In the afterlife, Ofelia is awarded her throne as princess of the underworld, wearing ruby slippers, symbolising the power she wielded in defiance to Vidal’s corruption. Similar to popular stories such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Guillermo Del Toro uses a child’s perspective on a form of oppression they have not been adapted to, the narrative coming from the very same generation who will act as the resistance. This is further highlighted in Pan’s Labyrinth itself when Ofelia promises to make her brother a prince shortly before her ultimate sacrifice. In an interview with The AV Club, Del Toro explains his narrative choice:
“When we’re kids, brutality registers differently than when we are adults. I tried to make the violent scenes—in what is essentially a war movie and a fantasy movie mixed together—disturbing and unsettling and heartbreaking. That contrast is great, because it has not only that childlike sense of wonder, but the brutality that only a child would sense. Because as adults, we get too used to violence.”
By choosing this narrative in his films, Del Toro finds a voice for the marginalised that would otherwise be desensitised to the evils of the world or the solution to these evils. Pan’s Labyrinth uses some of the starkest contrasts imaginable to present these ideas – gargantuan, wicked monsters presented through the eyes of a virtuous, meek little girl. Ultimately, Del Toro wants the audience of this film – predominately politically-minded adults – to view Ofelia’s tale as if it were a parable. As viewers, we should leave this film reflecting on our own political or social climates as if we were still a child, with Ofelia being a traditional hero in the same manner of stories we heard when we were young. As the epilogue of Pan’s Labyrinth reminds us, we can access this good in our own adult world, “visible only to those who know where to look”.
You can view Pan’s Labyrinth on Criterion here.
Bethany Gemmell is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time. You can follow her on twitter @chandIermonica.
Categories: Anything and Everything