Through the looking glass of a Spanish Alice


By Steven Snyder

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is fantasy underscored by fear and despair, a fable told through the eyes of a little girl who enters a world of make-believe not out of whimsy but hope that something, somewhere holds the secret cure to the world’s unending pain.

In this way, it’s both blissfully naïve and emotionally heartbreaking, a movie which calls on fantasy not to distort reality, but to enhance it.

The film is set in 1940’s Spain, when the Spanish Civil War is in full force. A woman has conceded her family, her happiness and her life to Vidal (Sergi López), a captain in General Francisco Franco’s army. Pregnant, she arrives to be his wife, and it’s clear from the outset that her sacrifice is less for herself than for her young daughter, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). The times are rough, but with Vidal there is food, shelter and, most importantly, protection. So mom agrees to marry a cruel and vicious man to keep her daughter safe.

There’s an aura of gloom about this film that seems to match its themes of lives lost and hopes abandoned. Ofelia’s mother does not love her new father, but she accepts the hand that life has dealt her. The man doesn’t seem to much care for his bride-to-be either, and we begin to speculate just how much her pregnancy has to do with her sudden arrival at the outpost. Could it be that the pregnancy was unexpected, and that they are now living together out of commitment — not choice?

Vidal regards Ofelia as a nuisance and for her part, Ofelia hates this dark, dank place. Fortified from nature, removed from the thriving forest, Vidal is using this outpost to quell a rebel uprising, yet even here, he doesn’t seem to relish his job. It’s simply the role he has been forced to play, so he plays the part ruthlessly.

It’s in Ofelia’s imagination where hope lies. One day walking out into the forest, and discovering a hidden cavern, she walks down into the darkness and is greeted by a mysterious creature. At first, she’s terrified — he looks menacing enough — but then he gives her a series of challenges and promises rewards, and Ofelia starts returning to this fantasy world, discovering within herself a sense of fearlessness she uses to help her ailing mother.

There are three captivating stories here, playing out side by side. The first is one of emotions, a coming-of-age story that watches a girl during a terrifying time as she struggles to make sense out of the insanity of war. The second is a sort of magical mystery tour, as Ofelia’s sporadic meetings with her surreal creatures become increasingly complex, bizarre and, at times, terrifying.

But it’s the third story, more about the grown-up world, that makes “Pan’s Labyrinth” so powerful. Ofelia is hoping that her surreal adventures can influence reality, but those adventures underground continually clash with what’s happening on the surface. There’s a reason her fantasy world is a dark and scary place — it’s all she can imagine at the time. But her determination to confront and overcome her fears parallels the courage exhibited by so many other adults in the film, all secretly supporting the rebels behind Vidal’s back or trying to survive this time of war.

All three stories collide later on, most strikingly in a scene where the health of Ofelia’s mother, Ofelia’s fascination with her newfound magical mentors, and the violence of her new father come crashing together.

Guillermo del Toro, who both wrote and directed this story based on a Spanish legend, ties the movie’s ominous image to a larger theme of a world at a crossroads — a vision of hell on Earth and what it takes to survive. And then quietly, in an epilogue that brings this dark vision into the light, del Toro closes his tale with a loving ending that hugs Ofelia close and tells us all it will be alright.