Pan's Labyrinth Interpretation

Pan's Labyrinth is a film about the importance of moral disobedience. For refusing to harm her brother, even at the cost of her own life, Ofelia is resurrected before a heavenly Trinity with the rose of eternal life imprinted on her shirt.[1]

While this overarching theme is fairly obvious, it's the sophistication of Del Toro's film that makes it a genuine masterpiece. Consider the omnipresent lunar imagery. Associated with femininity in the Western tradition, the moon links Ofelia's three challenges to the advent of her menstrual cycle and thematic end of childhood. Coupled with Ofelia's fascination with fairy tales and her childish preoccupation with beauty, the lunar imagery in the film tells us to read Ofelia's journey as a passage to adulthood, one which will end with her symbolically assuming the responsibilities of motherhood and paying the necessary sacrificial (blood) price.

This thematic focus on Ofelia's coming-of-age is deepened through the menstrual imagery that pervades the film, seen not only in the bleeding book ("what comes next," Ofelia asks?), but also through the suffering of her mother, as well as the sacrificial feeding of the mandrake child.[2] And consider the tree cave sequence, where Ofelia clambers into a vaginal hole to defeat a monster which threatens the fecundity of the natural world. Completing this task not only signals Ofelia's mastery over her own sexuality, but also reinforces her rejection of the Captain (symbolized as the toad) who - in parallel to this monster - dominates Ofelia's mother and represses the fecundity of Spain itself through his association with the fascist Franco regime.

It is no accident that in defying and destroying the toad, Ofelia also destroys the "pretty" clothing the Captain uses to tempt her into an infantilized adulthood.[3] For as Del Toro insists, growing up is not simply a question of sexual mastery: it also requires Ofelia to discard her childish preoccupation with physical beauty, and abandon the world of the fairy tale for the more bleak and maze-like reality of adult society, a point made most subtly when Ofelia drops her childhood books on her first encounter with the overgrown labyrinth.

As in other Christian films like Inception, we are in the realm of metaphorical commentary on the nature of existence. The labyrinth symbolizes the mortal world. And this is why the fantasy elements in the film are so bleak: for just as the real world is filled with characters who torture and kill (note the repeated images of hunters and hunting), so must the underworld be necessarily inhabited by their equals: carnivorous fawns and fairies, not to mention characters like the Pale Man who feast on whatever children are unlucky enough to stumble within grasp. The fantasy world is violent because it reflects the corruptions of humanity itself: a point made most elegantly through the story of the mandrake root, a creature which is made human by acclimatizing it to a diet of blood.

Why does this matter for understanding the film, exactly? The reason is that while many people understand that the underworld parallels the real world in some fashion, most critics misread the fantasy elements as mere projection, arguing that they represent a kind of psychological escapism or a coping mechanism for Ofelia.[4] In fact, what Del Toro gives us is an allegorical fairy tale that offers cryptic comentary on the nature of the world and the best method of dealing with its cycle of cruel and self-consuming violence.

We can be sure of this not only because seemingly fantastical events actually influence developments in the real world, but also because developments in the underworld thematically anticipate what happens later in the film. The Captain's staggering pursuit of Ofelia at the climax should stir us to recollect her earlier flight from the Pale Man. The equivalence between these two monsters was earlier made clear by the repeated visuals of both sitting at the heads of their respective tables, as well as through more subtle narrative touches: just as Ofelia's theft of food from the forbidden table awakens the deadly monster, so does the theft of supplies from his pantry awaken the Captain to the feminine betrayal within his own household.

So very unlike the senseless kind of "magical realism" we see in authors like Murakami, what we have in Pan's Labyrinth is deliberate moral pageantry that makes an ethical and Christian argument about what it means to be an adult. With this in mind, it should be no leap to see that the three tasks Ofelia faces (and must pass to "grow up") are tests of moral character, all of which require her to reject submission to the sort of violent male authoritarianism represented in the character of the Captain. And which is the best mode of resistence? Should Ofelia choose the complicit submission or suffering indifference of her mother or the villagers, the eye-for-an-eye violent resistance of the Spanish rebels, or the pacific but principled non-cooperation of Mercedes and the doctor?

The fact that all of her underworld tasks require Ofelia to embrace moral disobedience (rejecting the fawn's demand for unquestioned authority and disobeying the instructions of the magic book) suggests that the correct choice is of course that of Mercedes and the doctor, characters Del Toro not coincidentally paints as doubled parental figures for the young girl. As the subplot involving the Spanish resistance makes clear, both Mercedes and the doctor reject violence as a tool of resistance, but act humanely in service to others even when doing so requires paying a blood price. When the doctor is challenged by the captain on this point, threatened with death for preventing him from torturing a captive prisoner, his answer speaks for the morality of the film itself: "to obey without thinking... that's something only people like you can do."

And with this the rest of the film's thematic subtext falls into place. Just as the doctor stands in opposition to the Captain, we also have the opposing symbols of the true and false fathers, an undercurrent which lends significance not only to Ofelia's continual rejection of the Captain ("he's not my father"), but also the more political undercurrents in the film, which show the Franco regime co-opting the Catholic church and assuming the image of a false God through the distribution of the "daily bread" of the community.

We see repeated visuals of gaping mouths (symbolizing the world's cycle of violence and associated thematically with it through the statue that sits at the entrance to the labyrinth) as well as images of missing eyes (symbolizing moral blindness and unethical behavior). In one of the film's many nice touches which passes almost unnoticed, it is the humane and ethical doctor who wears glasses[5] and thus "sees", while at the opening of the film we also see Ofelia replacing the missing eye of a decrepit statue. It is Ofelia who will likewise come to "see" and whose refusal to be complicit in evil is the act which transforms her from a child into a maternal figure whose blood sacrifice restores moral order and biblical fecundity to the world.

And now we reach the end of the film. Just as the captain dies sonless, denied eternity through the thematic loss of his bloodline, we see Ofelia gain eternal life not only through her symbolic assumption of motherhood as well as the afterlife sequence mentioned above, but even through the defeat of time itself, as the forward momentum of the timepiece which condemns the captain to death is reversed in the closing moments of the film as Ofelia's blood flows backwards in time, pushing the film itself into a thematically circular loop that is visually suggestive of eternity.


[1]: this is the rose from the fable Ofelia tells her unborn brother. As the story goes, it provides the bearer with eternal life, but sits withering because man's fear of death keeps him from accepting the price of death which must be paid for it. It may also be an allusion to the rose from the Empyrean in the Divine Comedy, which symbolizes the love of God.

[2]: the core message here is that behaving ethically requires the willingness to accept pain and suffering as the cost of doing good. This pain and suffering -- the tax imposed by the thorns/death in the rose fable -- is now presented in this maternal imagery as the blood associated with childbirth. The Christian image of the mother is invoked as a figure who echoes Jesus in giving life to others by willingly assuming pain and suffering. And in this light, note how Ofelia first rejects motherhood out of an unwillingness to pay the price, only to reverse her choice at the climax of the film. And through this reversal, Ofelia becomes a symbolic mother-figure to her infant brother by paying the price thematically required through her own blood sacrifice.

[3]: when Ofelia asks Mercedes if she considers her mother beautiful, this reflects a childish concern for her own beauty that Ofelia overcomes most visibly through the first task which leads to the destruction of her pretty dress and shoes. We return to symbolism of clothing reflecting true beauty only at the end of the film, which presents Ofelia resurrected and possessed of more beautiful clothing than she before gives away.

[4]: for two examples, see http://www.sdentertainer.com/arts/pans-labyrinth-a-psychological-analysis or http://monsterawarenessmonth.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/pans-labyrinth-review-2.

[5]: the captain is shown wearing glasses at one point, but these are sunglasses which obscure rather than illuminate. His vision is - thematically - cloudy, just as his behavior is - as seen through the mirror - ultimately self-destructive.

If you liked this, you might like my similar readings of The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall. And if you'd like to be notified when I publish more, please send me an email at david@popupchinese.com. Constructive feedback and criticism is also very welcome. (March 24, 2013)