With Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro we return to talk a little about cinema. Our last appointment with films dates back to Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon.
Why did we choose October 20 to tell you about this film? 15 years ago, in 2006, the film was released in Mexican cinemas, the homeland of Guillermo del Toro.
Before explaining what this film is about and why it does it, let’s introduce the talented director.
Short biography of Guillermo del Toro
The magician of make-up and special effects
Guillermo Del Toro is a screenwriter, director, film producer and novelist born in Guadalajara, Mexico, on October 9, 1964. Recognized for his ability to ask humanistic questions, Guillermo Del Toro knows above all to create worlds where the boundary between the fantastic and the real is thin.
Like many other directors, he started shooting small scenes as a child. At the age of 8, he borrowed his father’s 8mm camera to stage toys from the fictional Planet of the Apes.
Passionate about science, he joined the Instituto de Ciencias to perfect his special effects skills. During these studies he specialized in making up for the cinema and on this occasion he became a pupil of the famous Dick Smith, an American make-up artist, who worked on the set of the film The Exorcist (1973).
He continued to work as a make-up artist and special effects specialist for ten years and also founded his own company, Necropia, in 1980. Very active, he wanted to see all aspects of the profession and therefore decided to found the 1986 Film Festival du Guadalajara. To add a final string to his bow, he works on writing and directing several episodes of the Mexican series La Hora marcada, in the late 1980s.
The success as a director
Guillermo Del Toro will use everything he learned in his studies to design his future films. His first production is Cronos (1993), a horror film that announces the director’s codes: the mixture of the real and the fantastic. His work was recognized in the film industry and Guillermo Del Toro made a name for himself in Hollywood, where he moved to direct his new film: Mimic (1997). Specializing in horror films, which allow him to give free rein to his imagination, Guillermo Del Toro follows The Devil’s Backbone (2001). On this occasion he collaborates with the master of Spanish cinema: Pedro Almodovar.
In full swing, the Mexican director directs the vampirish Blade 2 (2002) then Hellboy (2004), due successi al botteghino. Non è stato fino a Il Labirinto del Fauno (2006) che Guillermo Del Toro è stato riconosciuto all’unanimità in Europa e negli Stati Uniti. Durante la prima proiezione, a Cannes, ha persino ricevuto una standing ovation di 22 minuti!
Guillermo Del Toro is now an integral part of the Hollywood scene, with some big hits like Hellboy 2: The Cursed Golden Legions (2008), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2011), for which he wrote the screenplay with his friend Peter Jackson , Pacific Rim (2013) and above all the Oscar winner The Shape of Water (2017).
To date, Guillermo del Toro is the most awarded Mexican director in the world.
Pan’s Labyrinth plot summary
So let’s go back to the 22-minute-applause film at its debut.
Spain 1944. Although the Spanish civil war ended thanks to the Francoists, the resistance is organized and active in the Mediterranean scrub, in the hope of overthrowing the fascist power. It is in this troubled and violent context that Captain Vidal settles in an old mill, with the aim of annihilating the guerrillas hiding in the surrounding forest.
Ofelia, 12, arrives with her mother Carmen, pregnant with the child of Captain Vidal, her second husband. Faced with the violence that she perceives in her stepfather and in the distressing environment of her house, Ophelia takes refuge in fairy tales. A few days later, led by a winged insect that she imagines to be a fairy, Ophelia discovers a labyrinth at the edge of the forest, inhabited by a creepy-looking faun.
The faun announces that Ofelia is actually Vaana, the lost princess of a fairy kingdom. To regain the kingdom, she must pass three dangerous tests to prove she is still “immortal”. Meanwhile, Captain Vidal proves to be increasingly brutal and tyrannical and is about to crush the resistance.
At first glance, Guillermo del Toro’s sixth film is a fantastic tale with its magical creatures, its ogres and its world tinged with paganism.
In reality, the director manages to mix legendary history and ancient myths with a true historical and political reflection, because it is in fact a historical film, which offers his vision of a troubled and complex period.
The meaning of Pan’s Labyrinth
With Pan’s Labyrinth, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro offers us a sort of sequel to The Devil’s Backbone, set during the period of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
Pan’s Labyrinth deals with the post-war violence of the 1940s through the eyes of a little girl who tries to make sense of the disturbing world in which she lives, taking refuge in fairy tales. Anchored to a proven historical reality, the film is articulated according to the codes of the marvelous – genre that denies the laws of the real world – thus offering a glimmer of hope embodied by the sacrifice of Ophelia, a metaphor for the possibility of victory for the Spanish resistance and a rebirth of society, thanks to the strength of faith in the imagination.
Pan’s Labyrinth proposes from the beginning two distinct stories, that of the two main characters. Ofelia and Vidal oppose each other, intersect and echo as the film progresses, until they “get entangled to become one in the end”.
The intertwining of different worlds
The fantastic dimension of the film emerges from this porosity between worlds. As a matter of fact, the alteration of the laws of reality is nestled in the progressive intertwining between the historical reality of fascism and the imagination of a young girl who takes refuge in fairy tales to escape horror. In a less horror style it is the same trick that Tarsem Singh uses in The Fall, where the young Alexandria hospitalized, uses the people who live her reality with her, as protagonists of fantastic stories.
Narratively, the games of mirrors between the real world and the wonderful world make the narrative lines of Vidal and Ofelia coincide through twists that occurred according to the conventions of the fantasy genre, revealing the monstrosity of man and the abomination of the system that he represents, what is challenged by the film’s two main themes, choice and disobedience.
And then there are finally liberation and salvation, the culmination of an initiatory path activated by the ability to choose according to one’s own convictions, which will take the form of a rebirth, embodied in the film by the metaphor of pregnancy that runs through the film from beginning to end.
Between marvellous and real
The visual and sound formal strategies allow two distinct universes – the real and the imaginary – to meet in a solution of continuity. Solution that refers to the close ties that the two universes maintain throughout the film.
They structure the sequence and end up in the flashback that tells the girl’s entire backstory up to where she is at the beginning of the film. At the same time, they reveal that the point of view is that of a child, making it easier to accept the credibility of the fairytale dimension of the story.
The entire film is built on figurative correspondences that function as a sort of visual nursery rhymes that structure the narrative. They take the form of objects, actions or themes linked to the narrative lines of the two main characters (Vidal and Ofelia).
Let’s take the forest for example. Lair of cruel and dangerous beings, as well as an initiatory space in the stories, it is the place where Ofelia discovers the dead tree and faces the first test of her with the giant toad that hides there. A bit like Dante’s selva oscura (dark forest).
Home to resistance fighters, the forest is also a major obstacle to the pursuit of Vidal’s goals. Similarly, in the banquet scene offered by Vidal, we learn that Ofelia’s father was a tailor, a recurring character in fairy tales. References to Alice in Wonderland are in Ophelia’s appearance wearing a dress reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s character. Like Alice, Ofelia is curious and ready to disobey.
The recurrence of the number three, emblematic of fairy tales, significantly illustrates the intertwining that takes place between the two universes. Magic number par excellence, it is most often associated in stories with initiatory tests that the hero must face.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia must face three dangerous trials to gain access to the kingdom and become princess again: those of the dead tree, the pale man and sacrifice.
In the real world, Vidal realizes himself as a Francoist through three key moments that will move him towards his dramatic goal: the ambush aimed at the rebels and the torture inflicted on one of them; the discovery of the betrayal of Dr. Ferreiro and the housekeeper Mercedes on behalf of the rebels; and finally, the final scene in which he chases Ofelia through the labyrinth.
The narrative lines of the two protagonists develop parallel to each other, in an almost organic way, and intersect through objects – also often three – that flow from one world to another, as we will see later, and that will bring out the fantastic dimension of the film.
Elsewhere in the film, three little fairies accompany Ophelia into the world of the pale man. And there are three doors, of which only one will allow you to complete the second test.
Symbology in Pan’s Labyrinth
There are many symbolic elements in Pan’s Labyrinth We focus on a few.
For example, the monsters that Ofelia encounters represent the anxieties and difficulties caused by the violence she faces in real life. If we think about it, it’s the same ironic ploy that Joss Whedon uses in Buffy the Vampire Slayer!
The giant toad and the pale man are, in the film, representations of facets of fascism and of Vidal himself who is its incarnation. Vidal is Ophelia’s perfect antagonist, both on a human and real level and on a magical level, where he is the ogre.
Various visual and symbolic references concern the woman’s body and femininity. For example, the motif of the uterus is found in the stylized horns of the faun and in the drawings of its forehead. Also in the shape of a hollow tree in the scene of the giant toad.
Or even in the bloodstains that appear form in the book of paths that the faun offers to Ophelia during their first meeting, and which portends Carmen’s death during childbirth. Another reference to women’s periods and the symbolism of pregnancy is that the three trials must be completed before the full moon.
Again, the woman’s body therefore represents the “sick” Spanish territory, like Carmen, who is sick due to pregnancy. This metaphor materializes in the scene in which, in the evening, Carmen, weakened and worried by the movements of her unborn child, asks Ofelia to tell her a story.
In addition, the labyrinth that hides the well where the faun and Ofelia meet is the place where the little girl sacrifices herself to be reborn better with her parents. The labyrinth well, like the womb, is a place of passage that directs the human being to his final destination.
It is by grasping the narrative and stylistic strategies of the fairy tale and the fantastic that Guillermo del Toro manages to produce a hybrid film. A hybrid that admits porosity between distinct universes. This hybridization does not threaten the logic of the film and is based on a circular narrative structure, which refers to the shape of the labyrinth.
It allows us to highlight the characteristics of the Franco system which is authoritarian and monstrous violence. The hope of an awakening, which will actually come decades later, passes through the initiation of a girl who will be reborn, raised in the death she chooses to assume. It also implies the care of the territory assimilated to the female body, through the metaphor of gestation.
Speaking of the territory, we leave you to the words of the director. Here is the explanation of what his territory means and how it intersects in his life and film production:
“It would be cliché to say that because I’m Mexican, I see death a certain way. But I’ve seen a certain amount of corpses, certainly more than an average First World boy. I worked for months near a morgue, which I had to pass by in order to go to work. I’ve seen people shot at, guns pointed at my head, I’ve seen people burn alive, stabbed, beheaded … because Mexico is still a very violent place. So I think some of that element of my films comes from a Mexican sensibility. I hope this film allows me to start a new path. The way I see my profession and the stories I tell has completely changed after this film. Filming Pan’s Labyrinth was very painful, but it also became a war on not to compromise myself “