If you were lucky enough to catch Pan’s Labyrinth in theaters 10 years ago, then I’m sure you haven’t forgotten the fantastical cinematic experience it imparted on you and everyone you were surrounded by. Coming off his reign as the father of everyone’s favorite Baby Ruth chomping boy from hell, Guillermo Del Toro decided to take cinema back to its roots and craft a sort of spiritual successor to his 2001 gothic ghost chiller, The Devil’s Backbone. In doing so, Del Toro created not only a film rife with richly layered imagery and themes of fantasy set amidst the weening years of the Spanish War, but one that skews the coming of age story while penetrating the matriarchy of fantasy.
When our film opens, we witness an injured and possibly dying young girl, the dark blues of the night’s air resting heavy over her bleeding body. As a trickle of blood escapes her, we are plunged into the depth of her eye, where we are taken back to the beginning of our story and told that beneath the hills lie an underworld bereft with Princesses and Kings. However, our Princess escapes the underworld from her keepers, emerging anew into a war torn world where women are imprisoned by the keepers of a 20th century patriarchy.
Here we are introduced to Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who are both traveling towards a waypoint harboring soldiers under rule of Falangist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). We are then introduced to Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), Vidal’s handmaiden if you will, who secretly fights for the guerilla faction that hides in the trees of the surrounding countryside. It’s these central female protagonists (equals under the all-male watch of the Falangist regime) that comprise our films matriarchy, each woman existing between a reality and a fantasy.
Ofelia is a 12-year old girl who loses herself in leather-bound works of fiction in order to escape the realities of war. Soon she discovers a stone labyrinth that introduces her to an earthen-clad faun (Doug Jones) who instructs her that she is really Princess Moanna of the underworld kingdom. What one world offers, the other strips away without mercy, forcing Ofelia to become somewhat indebted to the faun, unfolding a path that would allow her a reprieve from reality. However, her escape from the atrocities of war and the domineering grip of Vidal is through her mother and unborn half-brother, who becomes the imperiled focal point in Ofelia’s fantastical quest.
Our other two matriarchal mothers arrive in the form of Vidal’s wife Carmen and handmaiden Mercedes, both subservient and domineered by a tyrannical figure who feels the people of Spain are not all equal. While Carmen rests weary from pregnancy, her potentially unborn boy acting as her savior from harm at the hand of her husband, Mercedes works effortlessly between cook and caretaker to Ofelia, a dual maternal nature working its course. In between these roles she struggles to aid the rebels, led by her brother Pedro (Roger Casamajor). Tucked away and folded under Mercedes clothes is a knife she uses to chop vegetables, one that acts as her own unborn child protecting her from the dangers that lurk around every corner. Through our own lens we observe the maternal grace bestowed upon Ofelia by Mercedes, taking her as her own child, and perhaps at one point she was a mother, though Del Toro leaves very little exposition between fantasy and reality.
What we do know is what we see-that Ofelia’s fantasy lies below, Mercedes lies outside the camps borders and Carmen’s rests within; her world dissolving into sickness and despair in an attempt to carry her husband’s child. As the audience, we don’t know how long Mercedes has been separated from the outside world, when her brother and she were united. What we do know is the dire reality cast before her, of sneaking away to the woods with antibiotics and food for the rebels. It’s an act that unites Mercedes with Ofelia, as they are both able to move, a bit restrictively, between their fantasies and realities; one fulfilling the commands of a faun while the other acts under the rule of a captor.
Even through war itself we are shown a barbaric fantasy, a divided world between control and chaos, where men battle each other through a schoolyard game. When we first realize the war around them, it’s through a strategic tabletop battlefield with toy battalions that are moved around in the manner of a board game. As Vidal positions his army through this mock war, it becomes clear that he lives in a fantasy separated from the rational confines of reality, where he has won and no man is equal.
As the war rages on around them, Ofelia begins taking up the dual role of daughter and nurturer, as Carmen’s health becomes graver and graver. We’re unsure at first whether the fantastic has played a more vital role in Ofelia’s upbringing than her own mother. However, it becomes abundantly clear when she is given a mandrake root by the faun as to renew life into her fever-ridden mother that her fantasy has become a subverted reality that feeds off the other. When the mandrake is discovered by Vidal, we see for the first time the interaction and confrontation between fantasy and reality, and how destructive the war between both can be on the matriarchal foundation.
Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece plays with themes of choice and obedience within its story, yet it’s our three symbols of hope (Ofelia, Carmen and Mercedes) amidst a battle scarred world of patriarchal blood and bullets that breathes new life into both the fantasy and war genre. While we begin and conclude with the same image of death, the importance lies not in the reality of it, but in witnessing the strength it takes to die for something. In the end, the fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth becomes the realities of our own hope, one patriarchy becoming another woman’s matriarchy, as we witness not the death of a child, but the birth of a woman.