The Greatest films of all time: 92. Pan’s Labyrinth (Mexico/Spain) (2006)


A fairy tale like no others, rooted in the real time and through the eyes and mind of a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who seeks escape from the sad and torturous reality of her life to a fantasy world. The film opens with the scene of her in car travelling with her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to the country to stay with the army captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) of the fascist government of general Franco, the father of their expecting son after the Spanish civil war in 1944. Reading one of the many fairy tales books that she has brought along with her, we hear the fairy tale of the Princess Moanna, whose father is the king of underworld visits the human world, where the sunlight blinds her and wipes out her memory. She becomes mortal but her father believes that one day her spirit will return to the underworld, so he builds labyrinths with an entry portal around her world for her return.


A Fairy Tale for escape from the bitterness of Reality:

With the above fantasy fairy tales as a prompt, the car that Ofelia and her mother are inside followed by a couple of army cars as escorts, stops midway in a woods as her mother is sick with her pregnancy. Walking a few steps in the woods, Ofelia encounters a big flying insect whom she calls a fairy. The insect or the fairy follows her to the house of the captain when they arrive and even at night in her bedroom asking her to follow him. Arriving in a labyrinth, the fairy transforms to a minute half human figure or fauna, who takes her to a bigger faun, half human-half goat like. Ofelia is told by the faun that she is the Princess Maonna of immortal descent but needs to enter their world for a test to determine if she is still intact and her merit has not been corrupted by the earthy life.

Meanwhile the mean fascist captain Vida proves to be a monster who has probably murdered Ofelia’s father as a republic resistant fighter, as he kills with his bare hands an arrested young man for the possession of a rifle and hunting rabbit then shoots his father. Later entering the underground labyrinth, the brave Ofelia now believing to be a princess encounters a giant frog who after testing her bravery and not being frightened of him, vomits a golden key that Ofelia needs to open the portal entry to the underworld with. Meanwhile in the evening at the dinner table where captain has invited his accomplices, we witness a priest among the army officers supporting the Spanish fascist government.

Back in the fantasy world of Ofelia, she takes and shows the key it to the little fauna then the big faun who tells her she needs to be patient and wait for a while before entering her seven circular garden palace. Returning from the labyrinth and back to the house, in fright Ofelia witnesses her mother bleeding heavily and seems that she is going to have miscarriage.

With a chalk given by the faun, Ofelia is instructed to draw a door on the wall of her bedroom for entry to her underworld palace, where she has been advised not to eat or drink anything and not to be afraid of the beast she will encounter, but just follow the guiding fairies. When she arrives in the palace, she walks in a dinning room where there are plenty of food, fruits and drinks on a table and a big shapeless beast sitting at the head. Ofelia finally cannot resist and eats a couple of grapes that wakes up the sleeping beast who swallows the guiding fairies and runs after her. Ofelia manages to escape and returns to her bedroom.

Switching back and forth between the fairy imaginary underworld of Ofelia, and the real above the ground world, we understand the necessity of the escape of Ofelia from the unbearable real life of hers to an imaginary fairy world of hope. Putting her head on the mother’s belly who’s unconscious of her severe bleeding, Ofelia asks her little brother in the womb, if he comes out not to hurt her as she is nice with a big smile despite all her sufferings and if he does what she asks, she will take him to her palace and make him a prince. Ofelia is given a dead plant by the faun to put in a bowel of milk under her mother’s bed and pouring two drops of blood in it daily so she will recover. But when captain Vida enters the bedroom and catches her and the plant under the bed, the mother wakes up and in furry grabs the plant out of her hands and throws it in the fire pit. This undoes the healing magic and the mother dies after the delivery of her baby.

Above the ground, in the real world of fighting for democracy against the Spanish fascist regime, many of the resistant fighters are massacred even while injured and as the prisoners of war. The faun when finds out Ofelia has eaten the grapes and not obeyed the rules, in anger tells her that she cannot return to the labyrinth and her palace. Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), the captain’s maid whose brother is a resistant fighter and is tortured and killed by the captain finally decides to flee with Ofelia. But the two upon leaving are caught by the captain and his men and while Mercedes is about to be tortured by Vida, she takes out a blade hiding under her skirt and stabs her a few times and escapes. Soon she is followed by the soldiers and arrested, but before being killed, the resistant militias break in and start shooting at the soldiers and rescue Mercedes.

Meanwhile Ofelia is pardoned by the faun and her return to the labyrinth and palace is allowed only if she takes her little brother with her. Before kidnapping her brother and taking him to the underworld, Ofelia pours a few drops of poison in the captain’s drink, but he chases her while intoxicated. Reaching the labyrinth, Ofelia is asked by the faun that she needs to sacrifice a few drops of her little brother’s blood to open the portal entry to the palace. She refuses to do so, but meanwhile captain Vida comes in seeing Ofelia with her baby brother in her arms talking to herself. He grabs the baby from Ofelia and shoots her heartlessly and she falls on the ground by the portal entry with her blood starting to drip on the portal. Leaving the labyrinth, the captain is stopped by a group of resistant fighters and Mercedes who grabs the baby from him and a soldier shoots him to death.

Back in the labyrinth, while Ofelia’s body is lying on the ground dead and Mercedes coming to her mourning, her soul eaves and enters the palace. Here we realize that all the fairy tale has been the imagination of Ofelia to escape her sad and lonely real world. She walks in the palace and encounters her father on a high seat as the king and her mother as the queen and she joins them in the afterlife as the Princess Moanna.

There are numerous fairly and fantasy tales in books, novels and on the screen, but there are a few that bridge them with the reality of life and justifies their creations and existence. Perhaps fairy and fantasy tales have their historical origination in the minds of people specially children as a portal to escape from the bitterness and hardship of the real life, or to imagine and dream of hope and freedom. Unlike many popular fairy tales that creates unrealistic fantasies and total escape to the imaginary world at the cost of ignorance and oblivion of the real world, Pan’s Labyrinth not only bridges between the two worlds, originates its roots in the real world and holds on to it all way through.

Moreover Pan’s Labyrinth starts in the mind of a child with some mythical connection to our archetypal subconscious throughout history as humans. The fairies in the form of fauna and faun who are Ofelia’s guide to through the labyrinth (The Labyrinth of the Faun) relating to the mythical Roman figures, and the portal entry to the underworld relating to Greek deity “Pan” (Pan’s Labyrinth) all give the film a multi-faceted in the form and depth. The story happening in a country struggled with freedom and for socialism that its civil war perhaps was a sparkle to inflame the whole Europe to the world war, gives the film a political depth unseen in any other fairy tales.

Written and directed by the Mexican filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro, the film is a just right collaboration and production of the Mexicans and Spaniards that went beyond its language borders of Spanish speaking land and took the world by surprise and accolades. Winning three academic awards for best cinematography (Guillermo Navarro), best art direction (Eugenio Caballero) and best makeup (David Marti & Montse Ribe), the film was also the winner of best foreign language film at BAFTA, the best film at Ariel Awards in Mexico, and the best international science fiction at the Saturn Awards. Moreover the film was recognized as the best film of 2006 by The Observer, Salon, Roger Ebert t Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, and the Time magazine. Receiving 22 minutes standing ovation at its premier at the Cannes Film Festival, one of the longest in the festival’s history and a standing ovation at its premier in the Toronto Film Festival, the film is also Metacritic’s best reviewed film of 2000s decade.          


In closing remarks “Pan’s Labyrinth” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: The originality of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is original not in being the first fairy tale on the screen, but being the best and also the best of a fusion between the reality and fantasy, a new line of imagination for the rescue of the life’s struggles and ugliness.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is in its script, cinematography, music score, art direction, makeup, great performances specially by the 11 years old Ivana Baquero, and above all in its technical “animatronics” and compute generated imagery bringing life-like characteristics to inanimate objects and creatures.
  3. Impact Factor: “Pan’s Labyrinth” is still new to have much influence on other films and filmmakers, though its first major one has been on de Toro himself and his late work of “The Shape of Water”. But at the same time the film is unique in its fusion between the reality and fantasy at a specific time, that any adaptation or copy could be redundant. Above all the impact of the film has been and will be on the viewers for sharing a journey of fairy and fantasy with an innocent child at a very sad time in the history of civilized world.
  4. Survival: “Pan’s Labyrinth” has survived well to this day for its freshness and uniqueness that still could be enjoyed while lifting up imagination and at the same time dropping tears.

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