Pan’s Labyrinth

August 7, 2008 at 11:36 am 14 comments

Much can be said about religion without really saying it out loud. Such is the case with Pan’s Labyrinth, which is not a religious movie yet still a movie on religion. Apart from being a beautiful movie, it contains religious themes that do not intrude on the experience at all: a rare thing. If you haven’t seen it, do so, preferably without reading my analysis, which out of necessity must reveal some of the plot.


Pan’s Labyrinth begins with the arrival of twelve-year-old Ofelia and her mother at the camp of Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s mother Carmen’s new husband. We’re in Spain, 1944, and Franco and his fascists have won the Civil War. Carmen is pregnant, while Ofelia retreats into fairy tales.

Captain Vidal, as it turns out, puts his ideals above all else, or else he’s just a plain sadist, effectually illustrated in a scene where a father and a son, suspected to be rebels, are captured in the woods at night. The father claims they’re hunting rabbits. The son says that if his father says so, it must be true. Vidal responds by crushing the face of the son, and when the father complains, he kills him too. Then they open the bag the two men had with them, and find a dead rabbit.

As you can gather, Pan’s Labyrinth is not a fairytale for children.

Ofelia, who believes in the fairytales she reads in her books, is visited one night by a fairy, who leads her into a labyrinth in the woods. There, she meets a faun. In the English title, he’s named Pan, after the Greek god. Even though Guillermo del Toro, the director, has said that the faun isn’t meant to be Pan, the analogy is apt. You can already read some religious commentary into the story: Pan’s appearance, part goat, may very well have inspired the Christian conception of Satan.

You see, Pan’s Labyrinth really starts with a kind of prologue, a fairy tale Ofelia reads in the car that takes her with her mother out to Vidal’s lair in the woods. The fairytale takes place in the Underworld, where people are immortal and there is no suffering. This can obviously be taken as an analogy for the afterlife or Paradise. Princess Moanna, however, is not satisfied with her life in paradise; she becomes curious about the over-world, sneaks out and, abandoning the underworld and immortality, dies. Kind of a reference to the Judeo-Christian Fall, if you like. But her soul lives on. And that soul, says the faun, is Ofelia.

She will return to the underworld, but she must first complete three tasks before Full Moon, to prove that her soul has not been tainted and become mortal. The faun gives Ofelia a book that will tell her what she must do, and instructs her to read it alone.

You can see lots of religious themes here: there’s the underworld, a world free of mortality and suffering; yet the people there are not satisfied, or Moanna/Ofelia wouldn’t have left in the first place. She sneaks out of the underworld because she’s curious: this curiousity is mirrored in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, where the forbidden fruit brings knowledge. Ignorance is bliss, indeed.

Parallel to the fantasy, there’s gritty reality. Vidal tortures for the sake of the cause, fascism. “Remember, we are not here willingly,” says one character at a dinner in the house at Vidal’s lair. That’s wrong, says Vidal. The rebels are wrong in thinking we are all equals, he says, because we are the winners and they lost. Spain must be pure, and if that required killing every single rebel, that is what Vidal intends to do. Therefore, they are there willingly.

Ofelia gets to know Mercedes, the housekeeper-boss-type at Vidal’s lair. As it turns out, her brother is in the resistance, and she, too, fights Vidal and the fascists by leaking information, supplying the rebels and so on. Her accomplice is Vidal’s Doctor, who’s tasked with making sure Carmen, Ofelia’s pregnant mother and Vidal’s wife, lives to deliver her baby; the pregnancy has caused illness. But make no mistake, Vidal is not overly sentimental: if it comes to it, he instructs the doctor, choose the boy (for Vidal is certain the child is a boy) before the mother.

Guillermo de Torro was asked to direct the Narnia movie, but turned it down, instead focusing on Pan’s Labyrinth. Where Narnia’s religious themes are obvious and intruding, Pan’s Labyrinth, in my opinion, does not stoop to this level. The moral and religious symbolism is there and integral to the whole yet doesn’t distract from the rest of it, and you can watch Pan’s Labyrinth as a straightforward portrayal of the Spanish Civil War or as a straightforward fantasy in line with Alice in Wonderland, and in both instances get something from it without having to deal with the symbolism that underlies it.

Ofelia’s first task isn’t very interesting, but the second has more action and deeper symbolism. She is instructed to obtain a dagger from the lair of the Pale Man, a creature without eyes in the face, pale as described, with his eyes lying in front of his hands, sitting motionless in front of a large feast. Again we can, if we want to, choose either to see the scene as straightforward fantasy/action or as deeper symbolism. The faun instructs Ofelia not to eat anything at the feast. This is temptation again, obviously. She doesn’t resist, but succumbs to some urge and eats some grapes. This, of course, awakens the Pale Man, who eats two of the fairies, then chases her. She escapes narrowly from his cave, which is decorated with pictures of the Pale Man sending people to Hell, but when the faun hears of her disobedience he refuses to help her or even let her do the final task.

If you’d like to, you can even read into the movie a commentary on the whole divide between fantasy and science, the real and the unreal. The faun gives Ofelia a mandrake root to put under her mother’s sickbed. When she does this, her mother’s state miraculously betters. But Vidal discovers the plant and demands to know what it is. Carmen takes it, and when Ofelia says it’s a magic plant she got from a faun, her mother throws it to the fire and screams, “There is no magic! Not for you, not for me, not for anyone! When you grow older you’ll see!” The semi-conscious plant writhes in agony in the fire, screams and squeals, then dies. With its death, Ofelia’s mother gets contractions, and soon Carmen is dead, her last act in life being delivering her baby. Rationalism has won over irrational superstition, and in so doing, has killed Ofelia’s mother.

Later, the faun agrees to let Ofelia have a second chance. The final task, which she must promise to obey without questions, is to bring her baby brother, just delivered into this world when his mother dies, to the titular labyrinth.

Meanwhile, Vidal is busy interrogating Mercedes; finally, after capturing one of the rebels, he has gathered that there is a leak, a spy, and identified her. But Mercedes is not, as in many a religious story, a weak woman. She severs Vidal with a knife and runs away to the woods. She is soon surrounded by Vidal’s riders, but her brother and the rest of the rebels
come in time to save her.

The injured Vidal, upon discovering Ofelia with his child, his son, the one that’s supposed to grow up in a pure España, chases her to the Labyrinth. This provides the climax. The faun has the dagger Ofelia got from the Pale Man in his hand and demands her brother. Blood from an innocent is the final task. But Ofelia would rather give up immortality than spill her innocent brother’s blood. So the faun retreats, and Vidal arrives to take her brother and shoot her.

But in forsaking Paradise, in denying to pay the price for eternal life, she has gained it; she’s suddenly in her father’s palace, and the faun tells her that this was the most important task, one that she by failing fulfilled. But Ofelia is dead, yet immortal; or is she just dead, dying with an irrational belief that is really untrue? We can speculate.

I’m not sure I agree with all the film says, or perhaps (probably) it can be interpreted in many different ways, but whatever I think of it, I cannot deny its beauty. The movie is gorgeous; the Academy Award for best cinematography is well earned.

There’s not much new in way of either plot or symbolics. The fantasy part is straightforward, the kind of story I would be immediately turned off by if it were a novel in the store. The Civil War story, too, is not particularly original. But the film succeeds in combining them, in executing the old in a new, near-perfect way. The cinematography is beautiful, the characters are good, the plot coherent, the symbolics rich, as seen by my attempts to interpret them in this review.

So, in summary, watch this movie. It can be seen if you want to analyze it to death, just enjoy it or immerse yourself in it. The symbolic meanings don’t get in the way. To speak the truth, I don’t normally interpret movies this heavily. Therein lies the beauty: in writing this review from a perspective appropriate for de-Conversion, I’ve only given it one spin; another viewer could give it quite another, and both would be equally correct or incorrect.

Or, as I’ve said, you could watch it just for the entertainment.

– Simen
(originally published on 29 Aug 2007)

Entry filed under: Simen. Tags: , , , .

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. blueollie  |  August 7, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    I just watched this with my 13 year old daughter. The director said that he intended the “magic” part to be real, but I still saw the fantasy stuff as a coping mechanism for that tortured little girl.

    Good flick; I can recommend it.

  • 2. Atheism and Appeasement « blueollie  |  August 7, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    […] Pan’s Labyrinth; this is de-conversion’s take. Note: there is a plot spoiler; I can recommend the […]

  • 3. Dan  |  August 7, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    Who want’s a t-shirt?

  • 4. societyvs  |  August 8, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    I liked the movie – I like how it deals with our imaginations and the greatness of that. That girl lived in a horrible world – filled with pain and suffering – what helped the girl to be normal…the ability to dream and have this fantasy land.

  • 5. furious buddha  |  August 10, 2008 at 5:10 am

    Excellent analysis. I hope you don’t mind, but I added you to my blogroll.

  • 6. Luke  |  August 11, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    i loved this movie and your review was spot on. there are so many ways you can take this movie and that’s what makes it great…

    “Where Narnia’s religious themes are obvious and intruding, Pan’s Labyrinth, in my opinion, does not stoop to this level. The moral and religious symbolism is there and integral to the whole yet doesn’t distract from the rest of it, ”

    you betcha.. when a movie hits you over the head with what you’re supposed to take from it, i dislike it as it doesn’t respect the view/reader. RAWK!

  • 7. Adam  |  December 7, 2008 at 4:46 am

    I find it interesting that several of the comments explain the magic to be not more than psychological fantasy.

    “Rationalism has won over irrational superstition, and in so doing, has killed Ofelia’s mother.”

    When presented with any information that we find that contradicts our current understanding of reality, we often quickly taken effort to neutralize the confusion by rationalizing what we see into what still fits comfortably into our paradigm.

    This isn’t to say that I’m saying this is anything more than a movie, but it also seems as though many are quick to dispel any fantasy in their own mind. Some see a magic trick and immediately want to know how it is done, while others see the same and, despite knowing it is an illusion, do not seek out an answer. Perhaps they are the only ones that truly experience the “magic”. Or perhaps not. I’d like to think that they do.

  • 8. blueollie  |  December 7, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    “When presented with any information that we find that contradicts our current understanding of reality, we often quickly taken effort to neutralize the confusion by rationalizing what we see into what still fits comfortably into our paradigm.”

    Hmmm, how about finding the best available explanation that fits with reality?

    You know when our cars malfunction, we could assume that pixies are doing it. When we get sick, we can blame evil spirits. 🙂

  • 9. Simen  |  December 7, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    Adam is right, but the reason is that we evolved to rationalize, and the reason we evolved to rationalize is that most of the time, this heuristic works. Most of the time, sensory data that contradict our worldview is wrong — most of the time, there is an explanation for our experience that doesn’t involve miracles and magic and turning the world on its head.

    That said, I’m very fond of metaphorical magic (seeing the magic in the everyday, fantastic fiction, and stage magic). I just don’t believe any of it is really above and beyond the natural. It’s just natural phenomena and the power of suggestion. (Horror movies can horrify even those who don’t believe in ghosts etc.)

  • 10. Adam  |  December 8, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Don’t worry blueollie, I don’t think that pixies cause my car trouble. Though, it is important to say that if the causes of car damage were on the cutting edge of human knowledge, it would be foolish for us to dismiss the possibility that pixies caused the damage solely through logic and reasoning. Many scientific blunders were made in the past by very intelligent and rational people because of the overuse of their accumulated knowledge when facing a new problem or issue.

    Back to Pan’s Labyrinth – it is precisely because this is a movie that my original point is still valid. I think I just didn’t communicate effectively, and that is why blueollie thought I was saying more than I was. The universe presented in a movie is not restricted to the same rules that govern our universe, and as such, you can watch Pan’s Labyrinth without immediately imposing our paradigm (or our collective set of heuristics) on the story.

    In some cases this is easy. The movie Star Wars is so far removed from our reality, that its easy to say that “the force” exists in that universe. Pan’s Labyrinth on the other hand, has so much in common with our universe that it is easy to interpret it as our universe. My comment was simply the observation that a lot of people do this, and did this, with this movie very quickly. When we do this, I almost feel that we lose something. While we cannot hold onto all of our childhood beliefs, we can still hold on to the few things that can still be magical to us, like movies or storytelling in general.

    So, in my interpretation of the movie, I hold that Ofelia’s experiences could have been psychological in nature, or she really could have been the princess of the underworld. There is simply not enough information to conclusively decide one way or another.

  • 11. Simen  |  December 8, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Obviously, a world of fiction doesn’t necessarily work like the real world. I don’t know why anyone would think otherwise.

  • 12. Adam  |  December 8, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Neither would I, but many people do.

  • 13. Orlaith NicAnBheatha  |  November 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I think the film goes a lot deeper were symbolism is concerned. yes there is a lot to do with religion, satan, temptation etc but there is also reference to fairytales we are familiar with today, little red riding hood (the captain can be portrayed as the “Big Bad wolf”, Ofelia little red). also the clothing she wears when completing the 1st task – Alice in wonderland and the entrance through the tree relates to wonderland, the tree is in the shape of horns (religion again) but could also be viewed as the shape of a womb in which Ofelia is reborn when she enters it. the wizard of Oz in the final scene with her red shoes (there’s no place like home and she has just been reunited with her parents). robin hood steal frim the rich and give to the poor (the rebels part in the film). There is quite a bit of reference to the watch, notice how the background of the captains room is the shape of the inside of a clock.
    Reference to Hitler and the amount of Jews that were killed, the scene with the pale man there is a pile of kids shoes relating to this.
    in my opinion it makes the film a lot more interesting to study the symbolism in depth. watch it again with these symbolic features in mind.

  • 14. Cedric Bruin  |  April 16, 2012 at 3:46 am

    When I originally left a comment I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

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