Pan’s Labyrinth: The Heart of the Maze

On Film / Essays — Oct 18, 2016

Is it risking a universal eye roll to begin with a splash of Yeats? Maybe. But let’s do it, from “The Stolen Child”:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

No other film can lay claim to the mythological frisson of this famous quatrain—the light-plus-dreadful-darkness of it—as surely as Guillermo del Toro’s beloved black-marble fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. The child, the wild, the weeping. A hot-tempered yet methodical fable in which fantastical and human calamity run hand in hand, the movie has the matter-of-fact magic and fearsome intercourse with historical blood of an Isaac Bashevis Singer or a Gabriel García Márquez story. Still the fifth-largest-grossing foreign-language film ever in the U.S., and having become in the years since its 2006 release a touchstone for an entire generation, this only seemingly simple tale is in fact stretched on a rack between opposing impulses: between understanding the world and escaping it, between innocence and experience, between historical reality and mythopoeia as high-flying as it is predatory and cruel. It is a film built out of secrets, like the unseen channels and blockages inside us.

Perhaps because that’s what childhood is—the ongoing ordeal of uncovering the secrets the adult world has gone to such lengths to hide. This anti–Wizard of Oz is atypical of its genre—that is, “low fantasy,” meaning one that dares to invade reality with the unreal, as opposed to “high fantasy,” which freely abandons reality altogether. Low fantasies, as we’ve come to know them since the days of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum, are most often forests of coming-of-age metaphors, bristling around a single Bildungsfabel, substituting all manner of creatures and appetites for the supernatural feelings of puberty, and finally finding resolution in and around the comforts of home, maturity, acceptance, and responsibility. Forget that: for Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the eleven-year-old heroine and a clear fraught-eyed descendant of the unforgettable Ana Torrent in Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), the film we’re watching is a Sisyphean struggle against monstrous agendas she can only guess at, and it does not end well.

In retrospect, del Toro’s conception, commingling real historical violence with fantastical experience, seems even more daring than it did in 2006. Set in 1944 in Spain, as the triumphant fascists are mopping up what’s left of the guerrilla Republican forces, the story has Ofelia finding herself, after her father is killed, ruled over by a malevolent fascist captain (Sergi López), who has married and impregnated her desperate mother (Ariadna Gil). They all hunker down with a platoon of Falangist soldiers in a rather luxurious abandoned farmhouse deep in the mountains, to hunt down rebel forces in the surrounding forest and, for the captain’s part, to safeguard the birth of his new son (as well as, if need be, to secretly dispose of the mother, if only one of the two can be saved).

Summary-execution brutality and toolshed torture are de rigueur, and no one, including Ofelia, is free of suspicion. But alongside this pressure cooker, Ofelia is presented with a separate, not quite allegorical, kind of crisis: in the overgrown stone labyrinth nearby, a giant faun (Doug Jones) informs her that she is the reincarnation of a princess of an underground kingdom, and she must pass three trials in order to forsake her mortality and reclaim her throne.

Hidden “feasts,” secret keys, and visions of metacannibalistic bloodshed in one world are reflected in the other. “My mother warned me to be wary of fauns,” Mercedes, the resistance-abetting maidservant (Maribel Verdú), tells Ofelia, who does not—cannot—listen. Immediately, we’re compelled to ask, Are the faun and the mythic realm directly beneath the skin of reality “real” or all in Ofelia’s head? But it’s the wrong question—del Toro conscientiously provides evidence for both readings. The distinction is irrelevant, because for Ofelia they are both tangibly happening, both equally dangerous, both beyond her immediate understanding.

The structural expression of a child’s point of view is one of the great unexplicated regions of cinema scholarship, but suffice it to say that filmmakers too often settle for a reduction of narrative terms, or an indulgence in what they imagine a child’s idealizations might look like. Del Toro instead doubles down on the ambivalence, ramping up the traumatic density and suggesting that the difference in stakes and horror between the film’s outer and inner worlds is so negligible that untangling them would be pointless. The ordeals are both subjective—subjectively Ofelia’s—but her experience of social politics and war is necessarily fuzzy; she knows who’s fighting whom, but the whys and wherefores of the conflict are beyond her. She has no agency in the vicious game of bloodletting outside. So the more urgently pubertal gauntlet dictated by the faun channels the war’s anxiety into a problem Ofelia feels she may be able to solve, if she has the mettle of a princess.

This is pure Grimm-by-way-of-Bettelheim, but in a fusion of contexts we haven’t quite seen before. (By itself, this chunk of history is not new to del Toro, who more predictably, though still dazzlingly, turned the Spanish Civil War into a ghost story, in 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, which also battles in the pit of prepubescence.) Of course, that war itself had a special relationship with the politics of perception. Not quite the first great, hastily dug shallow grave of the modern age nor certainly the last, the Spanish war still initiated a differential between reality and optics that became distinctive in the twentieth century. Famously, the Soviet role in the Second Spanish Republic was brutally duplicitous, the government itself was perpetually fractured by internecine squabbles, the supposed neutrality of the U.S. and other European countries was routinely violated, the many International Brigades volunteers who flocked to Spain were commonly stymied by the various participants’ hidden agendas, propaganda poisoned every well of loyalty, and spies were everywhere. It was a war in which nothing was quite as it seemed, fought for a hopeful ideal—an almost magical regime “where there are no lies or pain”—that didn’t stand a chance.

It was, for many, a loss of innocence, which for a piece of pop-genre filmmaking with a preteen heroine might be symbolic load enough. But the action of the film also reverberates beautifully as a metaphor for the incomprehensible mysteries and wholesale savageries of the adult world, as seen from four feet off the floor. It may not be a coincidence that the film with the strongest secret genetic connection to Pan’s Labyrinth is The Spirit of the Beehive, which Erice made while the Franco regime was still in power. Both movies explore with an overtly mythic eye the Spanish landscape in the years immediately after the civil war, focus on ebony-eyed waifs and their shattered families, and dally on the borderlands between reality and fantasy, but the parallels go deeper. In Erice’s film, the children’s barnstorm viewing of a dubbed print of Frankenstein (1931) is an electric event, rhyming as it seems to with the world as the kids see it—stretching away from them in every direction, rife with unclear connections, treacherously inhabited by images that belie their own meaning. Elsewhere in the film, mushrooms, family snapshots, the motivations of grown-ups, a dead body, even the movie image itself: everything disguises its true nature. For both filmmakers, childhood is a process by which we learn to understand the lies of life, and the experience can be inherently tragic.

Which is how the ancient fairy legends were traditionally shaped, and del Toro explicitly indexes these old-school mythologies liberally, from the stick-bug fairies (which are an exclusively Celtic and Northern European slice of folklore), to the Minotaurish faun (which like the labyrinth has its storied source in Greek myth). Just look at his variation on the changeling tale—a rather Yeatsian moment, in which the mandrake root (the “plant that dreamt of being human”), intended as a salve for the mother’s fragile pregnancy, kicks and mewls like an infant, until she, sweaty, exhausted, and insisting life is not like a fairy tale at all, tosses it into the fireplace; for a brief cutaway shot, it squirms, crying in the flames. The parallels the film makes—associating the unknown world of the womb with the limited knowledge of a child, with hidden kingdoms, with the subterranean recesses of history, with the buried truths of war—are uncanny, insensible, and essentially poetic.

One surprising thing about Pan’s Labyrinth is how little of it is consumed by Ofelia’s traffic with the faun’s realm, even given the overlap—less than one-fifth of the running time. We vividly remember the splats of wickedly visualized fantasy, but it’s the war itself, evoked with hypercharged threat and a narrative ingenuity not unlike the gear work of the captain’s own heirloom pocket watch, that takes primacy of place in the film’s moral universe. (Even the faun’s alt-world harbors signs of fascist destruction, as the pile of children’s shoes glimpsed in the arterial-red dining hall of the Pale Man.) Though Mexican, not Spanish, del Toro understood how the metaphoric torque of his vision reflected contemporary sociopolitics in the country it was depicting. As of 2006, the Spanish Civil War was still, in Spain, an unseen wound, a neglected burial site many hoped would just weed over and disappear. The war was rarely talked about and was subject to rationalization and lies when it was; no definitive national history of the period had yet been written. After losing at Bailén, Napoleon had said, “Spain is different”; all the more so in the twentieth century, when Spain was the only country in which fascism won and maintained power for nearly forty years—no small source of national humiliation and evasion since. Only in 2007 was the Law of Historical Memory passed by the Spanish legislature, to much chagrin all around, officially condemning the Franco regime and promising aid to exhume and identify the thousands killed after World War II. The law has reportedly had little traction and little enforcement; the planned mass exhumations have been scotched by a right-wing establishment interested only in letting the past stay buried. Even more than Erice, del Toro was addressing a Spain whose history remained a fairy tale of elision and forgetfulness.

Having grown up in a post-Tlatelolco-massacre Mexico himself, in a Guadalajaran culture steeped in native arts and crafts, poverty, civil discontent, violent oppression, and American pop, del Toro knows from the yin and yang of violence and innocence. But being the pulpster he is, he delivers this squealing stuck pig of a movie with classic pop filmmaking—sensational, unpretentious, never indulging in lyricism for its own sake, gleefully opting for tale-telling brio and speed over statement—in much the same way he scrambled lyrical images and blockbuster briskness in the Hellboy films. Del Toro’s stylistic signatures notwithstanding (including his ardor for the class Insecta, with its biophysical creeps and shadowy resemblance to machinery; raincoat-draped strangers; fairies; and demons), the net effect of Pan’s Labyrinth is that the startling imagery, and the seething context it evokes, presents not as self-conscious acts of auteurist thrust but as simply the ironies and horrors that clutter the world we’re watching, shoving its sad story forward to the last malevolence, and the dying-daydream coda.

For American audiences who encountered the movie first as young teenagers and have in effect grown up with it, Pan’s Labyrinth remains a waymark, an intensely remembered catharsis of pubertal misery and lostness. My daughter, around thirteen when she first saw it, had her secret internal chaos affirmed with a mythic gravity. This is how myths work—by branding our own raw sense of life’s whirlwind with the fire of an epic travail. The war depicted in the film was for these young people as much a metaphor for how they felt as were the trials of the underground dominion: different forms of the same tall tale telling the pitiless truth.