The movies of Guillermo del Toro, despite their success, must be watched with an astutely analytical eye. Although my movie watching runs a few years behind at best, a recent viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth left me feeling a little hollow and very reflective. The gruesome story is well told, and the fantasy world, even at the end, is hardly believable. Like most films that deal with disturbing issues, religious concepts are not far from the surface, or sometimes, the depths. In this case, the distinctly Christian trope of self-sacrifice opens a portal to a mystical world where a God-like father sits on a shining throne. But is it real? We are warned from the very first scene that this will not end well for young Ofelia, that “heaven” is but a fantasy seen through the hopeful eyes of a dying child. Even the faun (“Pan” of the English title) wears horns that suggest to modern minds the slightly diabolical, although he is in the service of the mystical king. I was so conflicted by end that I was glad the next day was a workday.
It is not difficult to notice that the heroes of the film are the female characters. Even the good men are generally ineffectual, but the strength of Ofelia and Mercedes bear the weight of showing any hope at all. Captain Vidal betrays his name of “life giver” time and again unless life is understood as unremitting pain and torture. Even the end of the film is set up as someone having to pay the price; the king demands innocent blood—will it be Ofelia or her baby brother? Of course, the girl must pay the price. In an interesting interpretation of the sacrifice of the only child, the daughter here becomes the savior.
Fantasy often has the power to heal. This is a key aspect that it shares with religion. Scientists have sought in vain a mechanism that would explain the brain’s remarkable ability to heal the body under conditions of belief. At times we’re reduced to name-calling, suggesting that somebody’s got something up their sleeve. After all, could a disreputable character like Rasputin really hold the key to physical wholesomeness (to say nothing of moral rectitude)? And yet, there are those who are made well by the most unlikely means.
The peoples of northern Europe believed that the veil between this world and the next was severely effaced at this time of year. Darkness is more prevalent than light. Pan’s Labyrinth begins and ends in darkness, and even the daylight—when it briefly occurs—is subdued. With Halloween behind us, the most veracious season of the year
lies ahead. Let us hope that this labyrinth contains fantasy.