Light-hearted fantasy is good for the soul. But sometimes it’s the stories that take us to a dark place that show us how to learn deep lessons in our vile, twisted world.
The Spanish film Pan’s Labyrinth is about that very thing. Set in the Spanish Civil War, the film follows a girl named Ofelia, whose father is deceased and whose mother recently remarried to a Spanish captain. They move to his estate, which acts as a base from which he and his men are hunting down the last of the Spanish rebels. The fantasy aspects of the story are found in Ofelia herself, who is in actuality the daughter of the King of the Underworld, who forget who she was when she was blinded by the sun.
No, this isn’t a story about Hades’ kid. The Underworld is a magical place with magical creatures, like wood fairies and fauns, for instance. Ofelia happens to meet one of these fairies soon after she and her mother move, and while her mother is sleeping, she follows it carelessly into the woods, through a labyrinth, where she meets a rather strange-looking creature—a faun.
As I was watching her follow the fairy into the woods, I was telling my wife that if and when we have a daughter, the first thing I will tell her is to never wander off into the woods with a magical creature by herself. It’s dangerous and stupid. I know that kids do stuff without thinking, but I’m often left in these movies wondering how on Earth every child in every one of these movies could be so careless.
In the case of Ofelia, however, it makes utterly perfect sense. She’s willing to go and willing to accept what the faun (Pan, presumably) tells her about her true identity because she’s a girl who wants nothing more than escape. That’s never explicitly stated, but you know it has to be true. Her true father is dead and her pregnant mother is infatuated with a man who’s nothing short of a monster, and even wants her to call this monster her father.
Violence is somewhat rare in occurrence in the film, but when it comes it’s in gory detail, showing her step-father’s gruesome torture tactics and murderous tendencies. He also talks of how the idea that all are equal is wrong, insults his new wife in front of company, and swears with all manner of vulgarity when the urge arises in him. Guillermo Del Toro has succeeded in this film by making the most despicable, wretched villain ever seen in a fantasy film without giving him a single supernatural power or inclination. The violence in this film is graphic, but it’s violence with purpose. The Captain is a bloody, bloody man, and to think of an innocent child like Ofelia sleeping in the same house as him sends shivers down my spine.
Because of this, Ofelia’s life is not a pleasant one. So when Pan gives her three tasks to do, with the promise of re-entering her old life of royalty upon completion, she takes the plunge heartily, even after wondering aloud if she can trust the faun. And while I thought this would turn into simply a darker version of Neal Gaiman’s Coraline, warning children about the dangers of people who claim to want better for them than their parents do, it took an entirely different approach that really makes it into a beautiful film.
We live in a culture that has increasingly taken to blame on our surroundings for our behavior, which is often followed by a demand that the culture embrace the behavior, because they were “born that way,” or they “can’t help it.” If we followed that line of reasoning, however, wouldn’t Ofelia be something of a wretch? She has a mother without discernment and a step-father who’s as much a villain as Hitler in terms of their character. Surely a girl growing up in that household could not be a good person, could she? But that’s exactly what we see. We see a girl who, in a dark time of war, without ever picking up a weapon or slaying a villain, is a hero. She constantly puts others before herself, whether that be her mother, her unborn brother, or the brave household servant Mercedes.
Ultimately, Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t just another fantasy story, nor is it a gratuitous creep-fest mixed with blood and gore. It’s a story that reminds us that even in the darkest of days and the most wretched of stage in life, we are never victims of circumstance. We can always do what’s right, and there is always hope for the future. That is a beautiful message indeed.
This review was originally posted on Let There Be Movies