Pan’s Labyrinth, by Guillermo del Toro, is one of the most compelling fairy tales ever put to film. Drawing from an older tradition of stories that spoke of brutal truths and harsh realities, as well as del Toro’s own fascination with monsters, this magnificent story tells of Ofelia, a young girl trying to survive the latter days of the Spanish Civil War by diving deep into a fairy realm of her own imagining.
As the story begins, Ofelia and her sickly, pregnant mother Carmen drive into the mountains to meet with Carmen’s new husband—and Ofelia’s new stepfather—Captain Vidal. Vidal is a fascist military officer stationed out in the boondocks to hunt down and destroy a cell of rebel republicans. He is all military and no humanity, perfectly willing to torture and kill whomever he feels he must to accomplish his mission. So what if a few innocent people fill the grave along the way? They should apologize to him for wasting his time.
We never quite know why Carmen has agreed to marry Vidal, but we do know she is carrying his son. Ofelia is openly apprehensive about living with a career sadist in bandit country, and Carmen seems worried that Ofelia’s rebelliousness might somehow upset what feels like the family’s last hope for some kind of stability. Ofelia’s father is nowhere to be found, killed, perhaps, in the civil war. And Vidal, while cruel and wicked, is a man whose star is on the rise. But he grates at Ofelia’s presence—a reminder of his wife’s former husband—and shuts her out, with a vague promise of harsh punishment if she ever troubles him. Ofelia’s frightened loneliness is profound, and almost immediately after arriving at the old manor house that doubles as Vidal’s command post, Ofelia is visited at night by a winged fairy that bids her to journey deep into the surrounding forest to seek the secrets hiding there.
For much of the movie, we don’t really know if Ofelia is really stumbling into a fairy realm, or if this is all just her young mind’s way of coping with the terror and upheaval around her. The Spanish civil war was a brutal conflict, and one can only imagine the impact it had on children old enough to realize what was happening. The spooky forest surrounding the house is the realm of the rebels, but it is also where Ofelia finds an ancient labyrinth and a faun that speaks on behalf of the fairy kingdom. He tells her she is actually a reincarnated fairy princess named Moanna, and if she accomplishes a series of tasks for him, she can regain her immortality, and rejoin the fairy court. The faun’s missions are dangerous, but Ofelia accepts them without fully understanding what they will ask of her.
With each successive task Ofelia attempts, the stakes of the real-world conflict around her grow ever more dire. A final battle between Vidal and the rebels is simmering. Everyone can feel it. Especially Ofelia, whose journeys into the fairy realm become progressively more nightmarish and bound by cruel rules Ofelia seems unable to understand or obey. While the faun at first is an enigmatic guide through a weird but promising realm, he grows aloof, hurtful and unwilling to help her when she needs it the most. Eventually, as Ofelia seeks to escape the violent madness of her world altogether, the faun gives her a chance to do so…provided she spills some of her baby brother’s blood in the labyrinth. Just a few drops, and then she can live happily ever after.
Ofelia’s decision here is this movie’s moment of truth, because it’s not just a showdown between Ofelia and the faun, who has vexed Ofelia sorely. It is a showdown between a child’s sense of right and wrong, and the demands of a war-torn world where there can be no fairy-tale endings. Ofelia knows which answer will save her life. She knows which answer will save her brother’s life. And she knows which answer she must give. What she doesn’t know is what any of this will cost her, although she finds that out very, very quickly.
As we see more of the fairy realm in the movie’s final moments, we are reminded once more how much of this is really just all in Ofelia’s head. For most of the story, Ofelia’s fairy world is little more than an ugly reflection of the Vidal’s world of bloodshed, pain and punishment. Ofelia’s realm only turns beautiful once she truly leaves her old world behind and is rewarded for all her courage and suffering. There are those who take religious meaning from this ending, but del Toro himself has said the ending is meant to be a profane thing, and indeed it is. For no child such as Ofelia should ever have to flee into a labyrinth of her own design, no matter how splendid and wondrous it may turn out to be.