Cultural Values and Social Issues in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”
By Eric Letendre
There is perhaps nothing more chilling than the evocative combination of a classically fairy-tale plot with that of fantasy horror and human brutality. Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro achieves this compelling fusion with balance and integrity in his critically-acclaimed film “Pan’s Labyrinth” or in Spanish, “El Laberinto Del Fauno”. The film’s setting, narrative, and characters are all quite captivating, and from the very beginning viewers are drawn in by it all. Almost immediately though, we begin to see the horrid effects of the fragile social setting in which the story takes place: a dark and misty forest amidst the aftermath of a civil war-torn Spain of the early 1900s. This paper seeks to examine the cultural values held by both sides in the gruesome conflict as well as the values held by individual characters. How do these values help shape some of the social issues presented in the film and how do they move the story forward? These are questions I hope this paper will answer.
In the beginning of the film viewers are introduced to the protagonist, a young girl with a vivid imagination named Ofelia, whose inner world is a fairy-tale reflection of the unjust world she experiences around her. Immediately she and her mother, Carmen, are forced into the custody of a cruel fascist captain named Vidal. Their presence there at the fascist’s military encampment in the woods is of singular purpose: Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with Vidal’s child, a boy whose destiny is to become his despotic father’s heir and continue the legacy of authoritarianism. Meanwhile, in the hills of the woods, the rebel faction fighting a guerilla war against the fascists bides their time in the hopes that eventually they can destroy Vidal and his men.
These two factions represent very different cultural values. Let us examine them through the lens of some of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. One the one hand we have the rebel fighters, Spanish Republicans and on the other we have their adversaries, the fascists under the regime of Francisco Franco. The contrasts become apparent with this mere description of the two factions. The rebels, for example, score lower on the PDI category of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions which is power distance index; the inverse can be said of the fascists. The rebels value freedom and demand justification for inequalities of power. They would not be fighting a war against the ruling faction if they did not hold such values. Likewise, the fascists value order and authoritarian principles. They exercise their military might at every opportunity, particularly the vicious Captain Vidal who kills several people over the course of the film for no reason at all save to display his power over them. Indeed, rebellion, particularly in the form of Ofelia’s imagination, is confronted at every turn by the authoritarian world “in which all fantasies are violently superseded” (Camino).
Another of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions prevalent in this film is the MAS dimension, Masculinity vs Femininity. Clearly, the fascists under Vidal’s command value typically masculine qualities—achievement, heroism, honor, assertiveness, physical power, some of these to extreme degrees as is expected of members of a fascist regime. Contrary to this is the representation of the feminine aspects, not only in the strong and courageous female characters including Ofelia, Carmen, and the undercover Spanish Republican sympathizer Mercedes but in the rebels themselves. Feminine cultures stand for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and protecting quality of life, all of which (with maybe the exception of modesty in this case, being what they are) the rebels fight for. Just because a culture is feminine does not mean that it is not willing to fight for what it believes in.
These masculine and feminine characteristics typified by key characters are only one set of dichotomies established in the film. Some others as we will see are light and dark, real and imaginary, etc. As the film progresses though, the clear definition between one and the other begins to break down. For example, Doctor Ferreiro, who represents knowledge and initially aligns himself with the fascist party, ends up being killed by Captain Vidal when it is discovered he has been engaging in the subtle resistance led by the Republican rebels, characterized themselves by femininity (Hanley). Conversely, the Captain, whose own name is often forgone by other characters in lieu of his military title—about as masculine an aspect as you can get—is a clear representation of military authority. Yet as the plot progresses, what viewers come to see as the masculinity-power association of the fascists—a nigh impregnable fortress of masculine military might—is compromised by Mercedes, a woman, who reveals to Vidal as she sticks a blade in his mouth after turning the tables on him, “I could get close because I was invisible to you” (Hanley). The gross assumption by the fascist regime—and dare I say by many men across the world—that the masculine is superior to the feminine is turned on its head as Mercedes and even poor Ofelia proves that no one is subject to intimidation if they have the courage to stand for what they believe in. As we will see however, this resistance eventually costs Ofelia dearly.
With all this talk of the two factions in the film and their cultural values, I have skipped over the actual plot surrounding our protagonist, and why the film is called “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Allow me to rectify this now, as there is much to discuss in regards to Ofelia herself and her place in the story. Upon her arrival at the encampment, Ofelia’s imagination almost immediately saves her from the harsh reality in which is trapped. She encounters a strange, mythical creature, the eponymous faun, Pan, in a ruined labyrinth on the outskirts. Calling her Princess Moanna, the faun claims that Ofelia is actually the princess of the Underworld and that in order to return home she must complete a series of life-threatening tasks in order to realize her true self (O’Brien). This realm may exist only in her imagination, or it may not. The natural ambiguity of the whole affair is crucial to the coherence of the film as a whole (Scott). With or without these fantastical imaginations, Ofelia would face peril regardless. As a young girl in a war-torn land, with a mother whose mental and physical state is failing, and with fewer and fewer friendly faces, could anyone truly blame her for attempting escape in one form or another? I think not. Through her trials and tribulations, Ofelia grows as a character, but is doomed because of it.
In the closing scene of the film, Ofelia takes her newborn half-brother away from the cruel Captain Vidal and runs into the labyrinth. There she is presented with her final task from the faun: the ‘blood of an innocent’ must be spilled in order to open a portal to the Underworld so that Moanna may retake her place at her true parents’ sides. Revealing a razor-sharp blade, the faun indicates that she must relinquish her half-brother to him. She refuses. The faun skews his head quizzically, bulbous eyes blinking a couple times. He asks if she’s sure. She nods, yes. He bows out and in walks the Captain, who extends an arm for Ofelia to relinquish the baby to him, gun in his other hand. She has nowhere left to run. She concedes. And just like that, she is shot dead at point blank range. She is courageous, self-sacrificing, and unwavering until the very end, and because of these ideals set in a world that is against her, she pays the ultimate price.
Viewers who are heartbroken at this receive a momentary reprieve when only minutes later the entire rebel force from the hills awaits the Captain as he exits the labyrinth with his son in hands. He understands the gravity of the situation and hands over the baby, asking only that they tell the boy of his legacy. They refuse, Mercedes saying, “No, he won’t even know your name,” and they kill him. Rushing to the mortally-wounded Ofelia’s side, we see that her blood has soaked the stone monolith in the center of the labyrinth—the blood of an innocent. It is ambiguous, just like the rest of her imaginings, but the final scene is of Ofelia (or rather Moanna) taking her place in the golden halls of the Underworld at her regal parents’ sides, the faun moving out from behind a pillar congratulating her on her success. But is it truly a success? Or has Ofelia been royally scammed out of a full life?
The final scene may be gilded golden halls, full of fantasy and wonder but it is also juxtaposed against a horrid, dark, blue-tinged scene of immense suffering, bloodshed and loss as Mercedes weeps over Ofelia’s lifeless body. It leaves viewers wondering whether the young girl’s fate should be viewed in a positive light (she reclaimed her royal throne and can now live in a fantastic land of shining, gleaming splendor) or whether she was a victim of the film’s setting. Surely, if the film’s protagonist had been an older girl perhaps her struggle would have been more grounded in reality. But this tenuous line between the real and the fantastic is what makes this film…well, fantastic! Ofelia is very much a victim of her environment. But in a way, her struggle against the tyranny of her ‘evil stepfather’ is a direct reflection of and a commentary on the struggle of Spanish Republicans against the fascist regime of the late 1930s and beyond, as the aftermath of the war extended for decades beyond its end.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is an incredible film that I truly believe everyone should watch at some point. It explores a world filled with danger, within and without, and is a dark take on the classic fairytale. Amidst this darkness we see compelling social and political commentary immediately come to the fore and the power of opposites directly influence the outcome. With masculine and feminine forces fighting one another into a blur of the real and the fantastical, and the film beginning where it ends—just as an ouroboros devours its own tail in perpetuity—“Pan’s Labyrinth” comes full circle and leaves viewers with a lasting bitter sadness…and a warm, glowing joy all at once. “Fairy tales (and scary movies) are designed to console as well as terrify” (Scott), and this film is unwaveringly a tale that balances the childhood magic of a fairytale with the oftentimes harsh and brutal truth of reality.
Camino, Mercedes. “Blood of an innocent: Montxo Armendariz’s Silencio Roto (2001) and Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno (2006).” Studies in Hispanic Cinemas 6.1 (2009): 45-64. Article. April 2017.
Hanley, Jane. “The walls fall down: Fantasy and power in El laberinto del fauno.” Studies in Hispanic Cinemas 4.1 (2008): 35-45. Article. April 2017.
O’Brien, Gabrielle. “Liminal Vision.” Screen Education 83 (2016): 110-115. Film Review. April 2017.
Scott, A.O. “In Gloom of War, a Child’s Paradise.” 29 Dec 2006. The New York Times. Web Article. April 2017.