Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s artistic vision is widely celebrated because of his ability to construct poetic explorations of the world through magical allegories. The finest example of this is his 2006 work Pan’s Labyrinth, a fascinating film that intertwines fantasy and politics in order to create a compelling reflection on history and mythology. 15 years have passed since its release but Pan’s Labyrinth has managed to secure the oxymoronic title of a “modern classic”.
Many have lauded del Toro’s magnum opus for being able to infuse the supposedly isolated world of magic with a sense of political immediacy. However, fairy tales have always been fundamentally political in nature and del Toro only harnesses the power of the cinematic medium to amplify his political critique. Much like the masters of magical realism, del Toro follows in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Márquez which results in the creation of an inter-textual network of references and a fantastic multiplicity of interpretations.
The filmmaker had been working on the conceptual framework of Pan’s Labyrinth for over twenty years, drawing inspiration from an eclectic mixture of sources. Ranging from Víctor Erice’s 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive (which has a lot of similar themes) to the paintings of Francisco Goya, the film bases its hallucinogenic nightmare in a historical tradition which enables it to espouse the values of social realism even when it goes off on surreal tangents. At its core, Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s attempt to formulate a cinematic thesis on the nature of power relations. He depicts monsters as symbols of pure power, subverting the very notion of what a monster is by comparing the mythological other with human evil.
Pan’s Labyrinth stars Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, a young girl who is forced to live under the patriarchal tyranny of her fascist step-father Captain Vidal (played by Sergi López). Set in a post-Civil War Spain, we see Vidal and his soldiers hunt republican rebels and engage in brutal acts of violence. Parallel to the espionage and the horrors of the external political struggle, Ofelia embarks on her own quest for power which will help her reclaim her status as the daughter of the king of the underworld. She is guided by fairies and a faun, mythological figures that have religious significance. Unlike the trajectory of most fairy tales that are intended for the consumption of children, Ofelia’s story is that of loss, trauma and suffering. Guillermo del Toro shapes his narrative like the circular structure of the titular labyrinth, beginning at the end – Ofelia’s death.
Thanks to the effective use of CGI, the visual impact of the film is undeniable. The grotesque is made to look beautiful and terrifying at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the veil of ambiguity that del Toro employs. Pan’s Labyrinth remains an important work of magical realism to this day because it does not surrender to the indulgence of magic. Despite all the supernatural creatures that populate Ofelia’s world, the actual antagonists are the fascists who kill and torture in the name of blind obedience. Even the memorable construction of the child-eating monster called the Pale Man is del Toro’s interpretation of Captain Vidal. The filmmaker successfully engages in a rebellion against the figures of authority who have regulated these symbols of power to scare children into submissiveness by using the same symbols against fascism.
Ofelia’s entire existential dilemma is predicated on her disobedience, her unwillingness to replicate the horrors of the fascist environment that she finds herself in. In the film, del Toro uses narrative devices to insist that the magical world that is visible to Ofelia is not the product of an overactive imagination. He explained, “The movie is like a Rorschach test where, if you view it and you don’t believe, you’ll view the movie as, ‘Oh, it was all in her head.’ If you view it as a believer, you’ll see clearly where I stand, which is it is real. My last image in the movie is an objective little white flower blooming in a dead tree with the bug watching it.” Pan’s Labyrinth preaches its doctrine of disobedience and urges us to usurp the tyranny of reality as well, asking us to open our eyes to other realities that exist all around the world.