Along with the other books and films that I have studied for Spanish, I have also studied El Laberinto Del Fauno for my independent research project, focusing on how the themes link back to Franco’s Spain. In fact, this post is scheduled for the exact moment that I’ll be starting my speaking exam.
The film begins with the image of Ofelia dying and the story of Princess Moanna, who lived in the underworld with her father, the king of the underworld. The story says that she visited the human world, but turned mortal and died. In the hope of getting his daughter back, the king created labyrinths to help her return to her true family.
The scene then changes to 1944, five years after the civil war. Ofelia travels with her pregnant mother, Carmen, to live with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal. While the place isn’t named in the film, some parts were filmed in the Aragonese zone of the Pyrenees. The journey has to stop, as Carmen feels unwell, and was too ill to travel. During this stop, Ofelia sees a stick insect, which she thinks is a fairy that later leads her to the labyrinth.
When they arrive at Vidal’s house, Vidal comments that they are late, keeping time with the pocket watch that his father gave him. He is rude to both Ofelia and Carmen. Carmen tells Ofelia to call Vidal her father, but she refuses.
During the day, the insect leads Ofelia towards the labyrinth, but she is stopped by Mercedes, Vidal’s housekeeper. The insect comes back at night to lead her to the labyrinth, where she meets the faun, who explains her true identity. He tells her that she must complete three tasks in order to return to her true family.
We also see Vidal murder two farmers for hunting on his land. Not only does he murder them, he also sadistically frightens them beforehand.
The first task is to collect a key from a giant toad. This toad is killing a tree nearby. Ofelia feeds it some rocks, making it explode and allowing her to take the key. This toad represents greed and is ironically killed by its own greed.
Carmen’s condition worsens, and so the faun gives Ofelia a mandrake to help care for her. He also gives her a chalk that can create doors. Then he tells her to go with three fairies to retrieve a dagger from the lair of the pale man, who sits at a lavish banquet. This scene is juxtaposed with Vidal’s banquet with other falangist officers. There is one rule: Ofelia must not eat anything. However, she eats two grapes, which awakens the pale man. She manages to escape, but not before he eats one of the fairies in a way that mirrors Goya’s “Saturno devorando a sus hijos“.
This angers the faun, who refuses to set the third task, saying that Ofelia has ruined her chance of immortality.
In the meantime, Vidal captures a stuttering rebel, torturing him. In mercy, Dr Ferriero, hired to care for Carmen, euthanises him, but this gives away to Vidal that he has been secretly helping the rebels. He then catches Ofelia tending to the mandrake, throwing it in the fire. This causes Carmen to go into labour.
Vidal also discovers that Mercedes has been helping the rebels and that she managed to do so as he didn’t believe a woman was capable of doing so. She is taken to be tortured, and Ofelia is locked in her bedroom. Mercedes manages to escape by stabbing Vidal, later returning to the rebels.
By this point, Carmen has given birth, but died in the process. The faun tells Ofelia that she must take her newborn to the Labyrinth, persuaded by Vidal. When they arrive, the faun tells Ofelia that she must spill the blood of an innocent to open the portal. Ofelia refuses to harm her brother, and so the faun refuses to help her anymore.
When he catches up, Vidal takes the baby from Ofelia and shoots her. However, as he exits the labyrinth, he is met by rebels and knows that he will die. He gives Mercedes the baby, asking that his son knows the exact time of his death, as he did his father. She refuses, her brother shooting him.
Mercedes comforts Ofelia as she dies, and we watch as her blood pools into the labyrinth, opening the portal. She then appears in a throne room with her true family, as she has passed the final test by saving her brother instead of herself.
Themes and Context
All the themes in Pan’s Labyrinth link back to Franco’s Spain and the fallout of the Spanish Civil War.
Greed is one of the most prominent themes. In postwar Spain, the government took many resources for themselves, to maintain the army, while the rest of the country suffered. Vidal does the same, having a feast while the people in the village starve. The giant frog symbolises greed, as it kills the tree to feed itself. Also, even Ofelia succumbs to greed, which causes her to fail the second task. This shows the isolation and self-preservation required for survival in Franco’s Spain.
Fantasy vs Reality is another clear theme. Ofelia uses her fantasy world to escape the brutality of reality. The fantasies reflect parts of her personality; the tree in Ofelia’s fantasies is shaped like the female reproductive system, reflecting her need for nourishment and safety in the cruelty of her reality. However, as real life becomes more brutal, so do her fantasies. Many symbols appear in both worlds, such as the dagger that Ofelia takes from the pale man, and then Mercedes stabs Vidal with.
Ofelia is not the only one who values the importance of myths. Despite his hatred of Ofelia’s books, Vidal obsesses over his pocket watch, apparently broken by his father so that his son may know when a brave man died. He denies this at the feast, reflecting the suppression of anything outside Franco’s regime, but then tries to replicate this for his own son, showing its importance to him. This request is denied, placing him firmly in the real world as he dies.
Subordination and Disobedience also feature heavily. Many of the gruesome scenes, such as the torture of the prisoner, take place in daylight. This reflects how easily Franco’s government got away with doing terrible things, in broad daylight.
Vidal displays a lot of the misogyny that was commonplace in post-war Spain. He is determined that his son will be born where he is, despite the fact that Carmen is not well enough to achieve this. He is also determined that his son will be a boy, dismissing Ferriero when he suggests otherwise.
Mercedes is able to sneak past Vidal because she is a woman, and so he does not suspect her. This reflects the mistreatment of women under his regime, and how incapable they were seen to be.
Vidal also tells the doctor to save the baby instead of Carmen. This reflects the unimportance of women under Franco’s regime, as does his choice to force her to travel when she is unwell.
At the dinner party, Vidal apologises on behalf of Carmen, when she has done nothing but tell the story of how they met. This reflects the repression of women and also the rejection of anything feminine, such as the apparently “feminine” emotional side of her story.
Memory also has relevance. Ofelia refuses to call Vidal her father, just as many parts of Spain refused to accept Franco as their leader. Vidal holds on to the memory of his own father, who he says died in Morocco, where the civil war started.
Innocence is another important theme. There is an innocence to the ending of the film. Because she saves her innocent baby brother, thus proving her own innocence, Ofelia is able to return to her true family. In reality, we know that this is a short-term happiness, as the people of Spain have much more suffering to endure. Despite this, Del Toro gave the film a happy ending, much like a fairy tale, reflecting the theme of innocence.
Vivid colour is used only at the beginning and end of the film, representing the royalty of Ofelia’s true family. This juxtaposition with the rest of the film highlights the depression and darkness of postwar Spain.
The whole mill is an allegory for Fascist Spain. Vidal, the sadistic dictator, represents Franco, while the innocent and reluctant Ofelia represents the Spanish people. We see this comparison most starkly when Carmen asks Ofelia to call Vidal her father, but she refuses.
When telling a story to her brother, she chooses to tell him of a rose that offers eternal life, trapped behind poisonous thorns. In the story, it withers each day, as it wants to share its gift but is unable to. This reflects the frustration of the rebels that seek freedom.
The resistance were treated very harshly in Franco’s Spain, and the resistance in Vidal’s mill is no different. We see this most clearly when Vidal gives the stuttering man false hope, telling him that he can go if he manages to count to three. It is clear that Vidal knows full well that he won’t manage it, but he is sadistic enough to enjoy the game of torturing him physically and mentally.
Between seven and nine thousand guerrillas fought against the Franco regime. Many of these hid in mountainous areas like the one in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Many of the resistance were workers, peasants, trade unions, accompanied by political groups such as the Republican Government, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists.
Almost all the themes in the film link back to The Civil War. The two sides involved were the Republicans and the Nationalists, the latter of whom were lead by the then General Francisco Franco. The elected government of the time were Republican, lead by Manuel Azana.
The war broke out in Morocco in 1936, where Vidal says his father died. It is clear that the death of his father impacted Vidal a lot, and the parallelism created by this fact creates a reminder for the Spanish viewers that while Vidal’s side ultimately won the war, he lost a lot, similarly to how the Francoists won a crippled Spain.
The Nationalist right were lead by members of the army, landowners, middle classes and the Catholic Church. The Fascist Governments that ruled Germany and Italy helped fund and arm the right, while the Republicans received the support of many European democracies.
Ultimately, the Nationalist win can be credited to the better organisation and more extensive help from Hitler’s Germany. While the Republicans had almost as many resources, there was conflict between the many ideals within the group.
Ofelia is an 11 year old girl who is really the Princess Moanna. She is quite naive, enjoying escaping into her fantasy world or books.
Vidal is a falangist captain who is in charge of the mill. He is sadistic and enjoys abusing his power. He is also obsessive about keeping his father’s memory alive.
Carmen is Ofelia’s mother, heavily pregnant. Vidal is her second husband, after Ofelia’s father died.
Mercedes is Vidal’s housekeeper. She is kind to Ofelia and takes care of her. She is also secretly working for the resistance.
Dr Ferreiro is the doctor hired to look after Carmen. He is also secretly giving the resistance medicine.
The baby is born during the film. As Ofelia’s little brother, he represents innocence.
The Faun is Ofelia’s guide through the three tasks. He is easily angered, and pessimistic about humanity.
I have also made a revision course on Memrise with all the key vocab.