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Monday, 18 April 2011

Pan’s Labyrinth reviewed by Enrique Ajuria Ibarra

Pan’s Labyrinth
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Released in 2006
Certificate: 15

There are very few times when a film has a significant, lasting impact on its audience. Whether it makes the spectator leave with a feeling of contempt, happiness or sadness, it is the remarkable quality of its production values and its originality that leave their trace on the viewer. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is one such film. With full liberty to explore his magical, wild and dark imagination, del Toro was able to present one of the most enchanting and harrowing stories ever seen on screen. Pan’s Labyrinth is not just considered the Mexican director’s masterpiece so far; it is also regarded as a highly successful piece of cinematic work that has pleased audiences worldwide. It is a contemporary fairy tale that reflects on how the Spanish nation has culturally appropriated Franco’s historical regime: with horror and dread dressed with fantasy and the supernatural in order to make sense of events that have been rarely addressed openly for various reasons. Pan’s Labyrinth is not just the journey of a girl looking to find meaning for herself whilst confronting her cruel, fascist stepfather. It is also an exploration of how fairy tales speak of social fears and anxieties. Del Toro has once again created a story where he is able to combine all the themes that fascinate him. He recovers the darker side of the fairy world as it mediates the horror of an actual and traumatic military regime.

Set at the end of the Civil War, the film tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who is obsessed with reading fairy tales, and her life alongside her mother and her new husband in an isolated forest region in the north of Spain. Ofelia’s stepfather, Captain Vidal, commands a group of soldiers set to destroy any traces of Republican insurgency in the area.  Vidal is a cold and very precise man, a prime example of fascist militarism, and Ofelia soon takes a dislike to him. Whilst her mother is bedridden because of a risky pregnancy, Ofelia lets her imagination run freely and she soon discovers a labyrinth next to the mill where they are staying. Inside, she wakes up a faun who reveals to her that she is the lost princess of the King of the Underworld. If she successfully accomplishes a series of three tasks, Ofelia will be able to prove herself as the rightful princess and return to her real father’s realm. Thus, she begins an adventure that takes her to strange and mysterious places filled with fantastic and dangerous monsters. But when her real life starts suffering from devastating personal blows, the supernatural and mundane worlds start to bleed together. In her very final test, Ofelia must stand up to the challenge of facing the greatest and most horrifying monster of all and make a vital decision that will determine the success of her quest.

Guillermo del Toro has often claimed that both his previous Spanish production, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth share a strong bond; the two films address the continuing cultural effect of the Spanish Civil War by means of fantastic or supernatural devices, and they both feature children as their main characters. Whilst The Devil’s Backbone contains a male or masculine perspective of such historical event, Pan’s Labyrinth presents itself as the female or feminine counterpart. The two films are brother and sister to one another; each portrays the horrifying struggle of war and military political imposition in its own particular way. In the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, the film engages with symbols of femininity alongside very evident gender and social issues. Particularly seen from a girl’s point of view, the film’s supernatural settings are all presented as enclosed womb-like spaces where Ofelia descends to and crawls into. It is in these domains that the richest and most fantastic scenes take place: the underground world is thriving with a sense of safety and well-being that is clearly opposed to the patriarchal military rule of Captain Vidal in the real world.  It is through the character of Vidal that the film exposes the cruel, relentless and strict, male-oriented politics of the Francoist regime. Women are subdued, silenced and overlooked. They are mainly portrayed as passive characters, marginalised with domestic tasks, often considered to be incapable of action, reflecting Vidal’s prejudices. In the midst of this evident gender stratification, Ofelia is portrayed as a girl who is capable of acting independently and of taking responsibility for her own decisions. In the same way, another prominent female character in the film, Mercedes, the housekeeper at the mill, utilises Vidal’s presumptions about feminine passivity to plot and work against him in order to help the Republicans hiding in the forest bring him down. Del Toro not only attempts to bring a feminine point of view to the Francoist regime in the film, but also draws attention to the subject’s ability to choose, a trait that was suppressed in Spanish society during Franco’s dictatorship. Thus, political imposition merges with issues of masculinity and femininity, exploding and colliding in an encounter that is inevitably drenched with blood.

Del Toro’s films are particularly characterised by their close attention to bodily injury and the infliction of pain; either accidentally or on purpose, his previous Spanish language films all feature copious amounts of blood, cuts and wounds. Pan’s Labyrinth follows this same style with Vidal’s methods of punishing disobedient loyalists and rebels. Even though his cold personality is discernible from his very first appearance in the plot, it is when he decides to punish some rabbit poachers that his true monstrosity unfolds.  In a series of quick, yet effective close-up shots, Vidal slowly crushes a young man’s nose and mouth with a bottle of wine. The precision and the severity of the wound are made all the worse by the casualness with which Vidal inflicts it. His determination, paired with his strict military upbringing, make him a man to be afraid of. Throughout the film he single-mindedly executes anybody who strays from the ideological premise of a “clean, new Spain”, whether they are Republican rebels, wayward poachers or his stepdaughter Ofelia. Vidal is the horrific representative of a military regime that exercised its power through fear, obedience and enforced silence. When someone does not follow the rules, they are in danger of being crushed by the extreme and officially endorsed force of Vidal.

The audience is encouraged to empathize with Ofelia’s desire to escape from this horrific existence. Del Toro’s film makes good use of the structural elements of the classic fairy tale to tell her story. Pan’s Labyrinth is a cornucopia of supernatural settings that aptly demonstrate del Toro’s rich and prolific imagination. From the tree-like figure of the faun, to giant toads and an evil and terrifying child-eating Pale Man, the film explores Ofelia’s imaginative capabilities and her knowledge of classic fairy tales. Firmly believing that she is a magic princess herself, she dutifully performs the tasks she has been assigned in order to return to the underworld kingdom. With the aid of fairies and magical instruments, she is able to face all adversities and escape from life-threatening situations to prove she is a member of supernatural royalty. Despite everything, what Ofelia demonstrates at the end of the film is her worth as a human being: it is her ability to choose that eventually defines her destiny and ends this magical, yet terrifying, fairy tale.

What makes Pan’s Labyrinth such a remarkable film is that it always keeps the horror separate from the supernatural. There are frightening elements in the fairy tale world that Ofelia interacts with, but if one pays close attention, none of those terrifying creatures actually physically harm her. Horror is driven away from the magical world and it is clearly nailed down in the mundane world. Del Toro has masterfully crafted a film full of enchantment and sadness, where any rebellion can be easily crushed by a political regime that is represented as cruel and relentless. Pan’s Labyrinth explores the historical fears and traumas of a national community and mediates their horrors by means of supernatural creatures, settings and situations. With its successful combination of fairy tale, historical realism and horror, del Toro has created one of the most memorable films of recent times. 


Enrique Ajuria Ibarra is a doctoral candidate at Lancaster University.  His thesis project analyses the social and political criticism found in fantasy and horror films from Mexico and Spain, and he has particularly done extensive research on the films of Guillermo del Toro.  He has participated in several conferences both in the UK and abroad and has published book and film reviews for The Gothic Imagination and Re/Action Magazine websites.  His main interests lie in the use of fantasy, horror and gothic theories to explore particular examples from film and literature, both in Spanish and English.


  1. Excellent review!
    This is one of my favourite movies of late. Actually, one of my top favourites. It is a masterpiece and it also shows that a low-budget, outside Hollywood movie can be much better than those stereotypical productions. Another two excellent examples are "The Orphanage" and "Hierro" (I refer to these two because are also two of my latest favourites). Come to think of it and as an aside, of late I seen more foreign of Hollywood movies :)

  2. I loved 'The Orphanage', but had not heard of 'Hierro' before reading your post. I ordered a copy after watching the trailer; thanks for the recommendation. Another great film with a similar feel is Pascal Laugier's 'House of Voices'. Have you seen it? If so, what did you think of it? David

  3. I didn't see that one. I will look it up, although it is a bit difficult with foreign movies in my country. Thank you for the recommendation too :)


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