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The Meaning of "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)

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Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.


Pan's Labyrinth is a 2006 dark fantasy film directed by Guillermo del Toro. It takes place in 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War. The story is centered in the aftermath, as the rebels continue to, well, rebel.

"Labyrinth" is one of del Toro's most beautiful and yet tragic films, so naturally, people are eager to attach a deeper meaning to it. In my humble opinion, there is no meaning.

Let me explain.

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a very lonely little girl. Her father has recently died in the war (it's implied that Captain Vidal arranged his death), and her mother is very pregnant and very ill. She finds herself faced with a violent bully for a stepfather, knowing everyday that her mother could die and leave her alone with him.

Ofelia is a straight-up escapist nerd. She uses books to escape her miserable reality. That's what we watch her do for the duration of the film -- escape.

The Faun (Doug Jones), the Pale Man (again -- Doug Jones), and everything fantastical that appeared in this film was little more than the games and fantasies of a desperately unhappy little girl.

Ofelia used books, magic, and fairy tales to escape her dismal reality. Every time something unfortunate happens in the film, she starts playing her games again.

Ofelia tries to get settled in the new house and is afraid of the dark, so she imagines fairy friends. These friends lead her to the Faun, who she is very pleased to meet.

The Faun tells her she's a princess and that she must pass three tests in order to come home to the underworld where her "real" parents are waiting for her.

Most nerds will indulge in fantasies where they are framed as "special" and "magical" in order to escape the dismal reality that they are just some fidgety dorks.

Why do you think fantasy books and video games are so popular among nerd-kind?

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Ofelia is no different. She is a huge nerd. She is longing to feel special and powerful even though she is actually quite ordinary and powerless.

My point is that Ofelia made all this crap up to escape her unending feeling of powerlessness and despair.

Ofelia also uses her games to defy Captain Vidal (Sergi López). As a child, she is powerless against him, so Make Believe is the only way to truly stand up to him without direct punishment.

When Ofelia is supposed to be presenting herself at supper for the pleasure of the captain, she instead runs out into the rain and gets muddy and filthy-wet. Her mother is upset, but because Ofelia's defiance is framed in her longing to explore and play, the captain cannot directly punish her, as he would look bad in front of his guests. The discussion at the dinner table makes it obvious that he does care what people think, but only if he considers them to be his equals.

When Ofelia's mother (Ariadna Gil) becomes seriously ill, Ofelia plays another game. The Faun gives her a mandrake root and tells her to put it under the bed in order to save her mother's life. This game makes Ofelia feel less powerless about her circumstances.

Captain Vidal, however, serves as an abrupt snap back to reality again and again. He represents the harsh, cold, cruel truth of the world. Nothing makes this more evident than when he grabs the mandrake root and throws it in the fire.

Ofelia is reminded once again that she is helpless and soothes herself by choosing to believe she could have saved her mother if only the mandrake root hadn't been burned.

The Faun eventually tells Ofelia that she has to sacrifice her brother in order to open the portal that will send her home. In most interpretations of the film, it is a test of her purity, to see if the world above has corrupted her to darkness.

In my opinion, however, I think the final game was just a manifestation of Ofelia's fears. She knew that she and her brother were in danger living with the captain and wanted a way out for them. Then the rebels attacked the outpost, giving her an opportunity to flee. The final game was her attempt to sooth her own fears: it was easier to believe she was going off to a magical world than into the dark, dead-end labyrinth to hide from the fighting.

The rebels arrive too late and Ofelia is shot by Captain Vidal.

There's a lot of confusion surrounding what happens next. It would appear that her blood opens the portal. That was the test all along: to see if she was willing to give her own blood rather than sacrificing her brother.

It's my belief, however, that Ofelia was just imagining herself passing through the portal and into another world -- just as she imagined everything else.

As she lies dying, Ofelia dreams of a beautiful kingdom where her mother and father are king and queen. These are her final thoughts before she tragically dies.

One last game to ease her from life into death.

© 2019 Lee

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