True Magic in Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro weaves us a tale rich in myth and archetypes, the kind we loved as children and forgot. At the same time, Pan’s Labyrinth is gorgeous, forward-thinking cinema that undoes what we thought we knew about story and about life; it woos us and haunts us alternately with fairy spells and brutality, and gives us the heart of magic. The meaning we find in Pan’s Labyrinth is reflected in the subterranean realm that Ophelia discovers, but like the faun who lurks there, we are not sure whether the omen guides us to danger or beauty. While celebrating traditional narrative motifs, and turning others upside down, The Labyrinth beckons us to question what is fantasy and what is real: the monsters and magic of the deep, or the cruelty of the world above ground. We can always dig deeper into the tale, if not beneath a stone or tree in our own backyard. Ophelia’s character illustrates how the gold is right under our noses, yet nearly impossible to grasp.
At the outset, the movie leads us to believe we’re in for a regular fairy tale, with a classic plot announced by the narrator, and the early appearance of woodland fairies, though their insectile shimmering hints at at the ambiguity to come. We meet an authoritarian step-father in the captain, an apathetic mother, and a stalwart accomplice in Mercedes the house-maid. Behind the scenes of Ophelia’s family turmoil is an enchanted book, an underworld of gnarled trees, and flourishes of mythicism that we in the audience secretly wish for our own lives. However, this fairytale is not sweet and simplistic, but dangerous and ambiguous. It offers us full responsibility, and no escape from the broken world.
The film is so enchanting that we wander in forgetting to look back. Once the fairy tale takes its darker turns, we are past the point of no return: how will the magic and the tragedy reconcile in this innocent child’s life? We must know, once the theme of good and evil hits — and it does with a bang. As we witness the captain clubbing a peasant to death, the brutality reminds us of our cruel world, and compels us to ponder spiritual ones. What more is real than the cold reality of conflict and confusion? Ophelia stumbles into it, but the question remains: are the tunnels of the unseen an antidote, or just another course in suffering? Answers don’t come easily, not without the courage and innocence to uncover them.
The human experience conveyed in Pan’s Labyrinth is not only ruthless, but complex. Characters are round and flawed. Ophelia makes mistakes which challenge and deepen her character, but the captain too has characteristics that elucidate the strangeness of human nature. You can’t deny his courage as he leads the army uphill into open fire, or his resilience as he sows closed his slashed cheek (forming as ghastly a smile as the Joker’s in Dark Knight). But the captain is deadly serious, and bent on securing his legacy in the form of a male child. His fortitude is tangled with over-wrought chauvinism, and his determination spirals into depravity. Yet, in him we can see the roots of goodness far off, but lost, as, in the tumult of strength and madness, humans certainly seem to be.
On the other end of the power spectrum, the captain’s stammering torture victim shows us how human strength falls short. As he struggles to resist his enemy, his stutter suggests the inability to meet the intense meaning heaped upon him, as if the human spirit pinned down so forcefully cannot articulate its condition. The scene of torture shows the mix of virtue and frailty, and how even with brazen intentions, we are not really in control. This perplexity brings so much beauty to Ophelia’s effortless heroism.
The wickedness of the world seems to call for resolution, but Ophelia learns that resolution isn’t needed. To her dying mother, Ophelia cries,
“I want to leave this place. Please, let’s just go,” and her mother replies,
“Life isn’t like your fairytales. The world is a cruel place.”
Her mother speaks true, but Ophelia knows more — no simplistic bliss, but a deeper truth: Life isn’t like her fairytales; the world is a cruel place. The atrocity pulls on our desire for peace. When we see the prisoner tortured to the brink, we yearn for it to end, but the end isn’t found in the deep where the faun meets Ophelia, and it will never come through the battling of rebels and governments. The resolution is in Ophelia’s pure heart, which the magical and the mundane intertwine to reveal.
Ophelia ventures in without hesitation, but we watch skeptically as she listens to the faun. He is frightening; he is gorgeous, and in all the duplicity of the magical realm, Ophelia has to discern using her own purity of heart. As the faun’s assignments unfold, they prove to neither relieve nor cause Ophelia’s suffering; they reveal what is inside of her, and maybe what is inside of us. We hunger to know whether the magical realm will undo the violence that overruns society above, but it is Ophelia’s full-hearted devotion that reveals the truth of the matter.
She is tested in one high point of imagination and spiritual intensity. When she discovers the feast, with a sleeping fiend at the head of the table, Guillermo pours on the imaginative goods to show that the underworld is rewarding, but as punishing as the war-torn countryside of Spain. She mustn’t eat a morsel, and though the fiend throws a grotesque shadow over the banquet, Ophelia is seduced by a single grape. One grape awakens a sickening beast. The stuttering prisoner utters one word with dire significance: “Mercedes.” One word, like one little grape, unleashes the wrath of monsters on the innocent. Both the magical world and the earthly one are full of potential and consequence, where character is defined at the highest stakes, and every little decision matters. Both worlds offer Ophelia perspective and the chance to hone her spirit. The real magic is the call of a deeper reality, and how Ophelia answers that call to the highest degree. She uncovers the truth that nobody else can see.
But the magical world in itself is visible not only to Ophelia. Even the general can see it. Without a wink, he grabs the healing root nymph from under the bed of Ophelia’s dying mother, and tosses it into the fire. The captain strides right into the magical realm when he pursues Ophelia into the labyrinth. It’s almost shocking to see the heartless officer in her domain. This reveals that the magic is not in the physicality of the labyrinth. The magic is what both the labyrinth and the surface world have in common: that nothing is more precious than a pure heart.
At last, as Ophelia flees the evil captain to save the child, she confronts the faun, who, against Ophelia’s instincts commands her to surrender her baby brother. In this moment, magic and the cold, damp earth are indistinguishable. The familiar world is closing down on her, and the magical one offers no escape. She is alone with death behind her and perplexity in front of her. In that moment of choice she shows us what the movie is really about: love that transcends life.
For me, the most beautiful moment is when Mercedes weeps over Ophelia’s body. By then we see that Ophelia’s noble character completed the kingdom of magic, that she is not only safe, but in bloom. But Mercedes, who only knows the fallen world, cannot see beyond the darkness. The truth is in her too, but she must cling to the little bit within her, while Ophelia proved to us that the little bit is everything. In this life of wonder and pain, true magic is the most human of all — where, in every way that confronts her physical and emotional being, Ophelia lays herself down for love.