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It is 1944 and General Francisco Franco is the fascist ruler of Spain. Captain Vidal and his falangist troops have taken control of a mill in the mountains of Spain. They stockpile food there, giving the civilians barely enough to eat so that they can’t afford to give any supplies to the leftist guerrillas in the woods. Vidal has married Carmen, who bares his child. He sends for her because he wants to be present at the birth of his son. Vidal has little time for Carmen’s young bookish daughter, Ofelia.
Unbeknownst to Vidal, his housekeeper (Mercedes) has a brother who leads the rebel maquis. She and Doctor Ferriero secretly supply the guerrillas.
The communist rebels retake the mill shortly after Carmen dies during childbirth. As the falangists are overrun, Ofelia kidnaps the newly born child. Vidal follows her into a nearby labyrinth where he shoots the girl and reclaims the baby. He is confronted at the entrance of the labyrinth by Mercedes and a large group of maquis. Pedro (Mercedes’ brother) shoots Vidal under the right eye and kills him. A weeping Mercedes cradles Ofelia. Ofelia dies.
Princess Moanna sneaks out from the underworld to become mortal and dies. Her spirit passes through countless humans. The king of the underworld vows to wait for Moanna’s return. A fairy leads Ofelia to a labyrinth where a faun tells her she is a reincarnation of Princess Moanna and that she needs to return to the underworld.
However, to make sure that her magical spirit is still intact, Ofelia has to successfully perform three tasks — obtain a key from the belly of a giant toad (that is killing a tree where enchanted creatures rest); use the key to retrieve an item from a locked door guarded by a demon (the Pale Man); spill the blood of an innocent into the portal of the underworld.
The faun instructs her in sorcery. Ofelia is distracted because of her sick mother and fails the second task. Ofelia passes the final test by sacrificing her life instead of her brother’s.
Princess Moanna returns to the underworld where she rules with “justice and a kind heart”.
- When and where do the events in the film take place?
The period featured, 1944 in Spain, is intriguing to the non-specialist as it is clearly a period where the rumblings from the Spanish Civil War are still being felt despite the war itself having finished in 1939.
- Briefly, what was the Spanish Civil War about? When and how did it start and end?
Which of the factions does the Captain represent? Why is he stationed at the mill?
Which of the factions do the people in the mountains represent? Why are they hiding?
Which of the factions do the political and religious elite support? Why?
A local priest, attending a meal held by the Captain, dismisses the possible pain felt by the rebels on theological grounds. His representation lacks humanity and is clearly a barbed commentary on an out of touch and complicit Catholic church: “God has already saved their souls. What happens to their bodies hardly matters to him.” Del Toro uses the cinematic conceit of a banquet to heighten the corruption of the local middle classes and ruling elite.
Despite his criticisms of Catholicism as a dogma and institution it is clear that Del Toro admires the spirituality of his native religion — in a later film Crimson Peak, a ghost story, he commented on his belief in ghosts. The scene above is strongly redolent of a stylised heaven with its church-like setting, a rosary window fooded with golden light and a grey bearded father figure flanked by a doe-eyed mother. It is all rather stuffy and formal befitting a royal court perhaps but not a fairy domain. That said it is clearly Ofelia’s (Princess Moanna’s) ‘happy place’ – she has come home to a loving warm family and an adoring people.
- Which of the factions do the peasants support? Why?
What role do women play in the two factions?
The representation of women is evidence of the social problems women faced in this patriarchal and macho era.
- How is food an important symbol in the film?
How is poverty an important theme in the film?
How is time an important theme in the film?
How is disobedience an important theme in the film?
How and in what ways does Pan’s Labyrinth draw on fairy tale and fantasy tropes and archetypes?
How is fascism portrayed in the film?
The negative depiction of Franco’s fascist forces is clearly intended to be extended to the imaginative poverty of fascism in general — in contrast to the more benign and sensitive (although hardly democratic) fairy kingdom. A more realist political representation is that of the guerrillas who are presented as resourceful and determined and egalitarian. Mercedes’ love of children (Ofelia and her baby brother) suggests a tenderness and a celebration of all things childish — indeed, unlike Ofelia’s weak and dismissive mother, Mercedes gives advice on the handling of fauns.
- How does Guillermo del Toro employ uterine imagery in the film?
How are maternal instincts presented in the film?
What is the significance of faces and shaving in the film?
What is the significance of flowers in the film?
How does Guillermo del Toro operate a ‘one for them, one for me’ filmmaking policy?
How far is Pan’s Labyrinth representative of Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre?
Del Toro as an effective and idiosyncratic fantasy/horror auteur is evidenced in his earlier flms such as Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Crimson Peak (2015) as well as in his much more mainstream Hollywood work such as Hellboy (2004) and Pacifc Rim (2013).
- How did the critical reception of The Devil’s Backbone influence the production of Pan’s Labyrinth?
Was the film financially successful?
Released in the UK by Optimum. Premiered at Cannes in May 2006 to great acclaim. Co–produced by a number of Spanish, Mexican and American production companies the $19 million budget is refected in the complex production design, period dressing and relatively large cast. The eventual worldwide box offce of $83.3 million was seen as a triumph.
- Why is the year of release of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth significant?
Why no CGI?
The key technology used in this film is the animatronics and green screen work as discussed above and its effective creation of a magical-realist production design.
- Why did GdT write the DVD subtitles himself?
Del Toro wrote the subtitles for Pans Labyrinth himself after becoming disillusioned with the translation of The Devil’s Backbone — a film also with the Spanish Civil War as its backdrop and the informal prequel to Pan’s Labyrinth.
Look at the “context starter questions” on the mind-map below? How many could you answer? Add your answers to the end of this post.