Some of the most interesting literature I’ve ever read was in my Spanish V class in high school. For example, in Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Aleph”, he describes a singularity that contains every perspective of the universe in every time. The concept was dreamlike as we read it in Spanish. We pored over each individual word in order to construct in our minds Borges’ abstract meaning. It was like becoming a child again and thinking about heaven for the first time: boring unless you know how to play a harp.
Like the two films I’ve written about before, Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth mixes reality with fantasy. Birdman is a movie that adores subjectivity, and Steve Jobs plays out more like a mythology than a biopic. Pan’s Labyrinth stands out as blending reality and fantasy to portray the theme of eternal life.
Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in 1944 after the Spanish Civil War. A young girl named Ofelia and her mother are taken in by her new stepfather, Captain Vidal. Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with Vidal’s child. Vidal is a typical villain, however. Being a leader in the Spanish fascist regime, he kills without feeling or remorse anyone who opposes him.
Vidal is a foil to Ofelia. Both characters are seeking control in the film. Throughout the story, Ofelia is seeking control over a hopeless situation. She can’t escape her stepfather. She can’t help her dying mother. And she can’t save her unborn brother from being raised by evil. So she escapes into a fantasy that gives her control and allows her to search for solutions.
Vidal also has the illusion of control because in this morally black-and-white tale, his fate is already sealed. He’s seeking eternal life by having a son who will carry on his legacy. His hope for eternal life isn’t shattered just by death, but also by the fact that his son will never know his name.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a coming-of-age film that both affirms and subverts fairytale storytelling. It takes place in a world of objective morality, but shows that objective, religious morality can be very ugly. Trying to gain control, Ofelia blindly follows the Faun until she makes the fatal mistake of disobeying. As a real-world result of her disobedience, Vidal throws the mandrake concoction she was making to save her dying mother into the fire. Her fairytale ending is thwarted by the reality she’s trying to avoid.
Ofelia’s disobedience to blind orders doesn’t lead to her ultimate downfall. It forces her back into the real world where she has the tools to overcome. This is a story that reminds us that there is some strange, paradoxical connection between surrender and victory. Self-sacrifice is somehow the way to life. When every fiber of our human nature tells us we must fight to get to the top, narratives like this one and countless others throughout history say humility is the way.