Pan’s Labyrinth is a 2006 Spanish-Mexican dark fantasy film written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Pan’s Labyrinth opened to widespread critical acclaim. The film premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and won numerous international awards, including three Academy Awards, after its release.
The story takes place in Spain in 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War. The young and imaginative Ofelia is sent along with her pregnant mother Carmen to live with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal, a ruthless captain of the Spanish army. She stumbles upon an abandoned labyrinth, where she meets a mysterious faun creature. He tells her she is a princess of the underground world and must perform three dangerous tasks to prove her royalty. The narrative intertwines Ofelia’s adventure in the fantasy world and the real world struggle between Captain Vidal and his fascist soldiers fighting the rebels in the surrounding area.
The film has several themes. It deals with the bitter end of Spanish civil war, Basque separatism, and Franco fascism. It is a dark twist on a classic fairy tale. And another of the main themes is that of female empowerment.
There are three major female characters in the film. The youngest is Ofelia, the child heroine. Next in age is the servant Mercedes, who is the sister of one of the rebels and actually is giving support to the group. Next is Ofelia’s mother, survivor and bearer of new life. The three main female characters are seen struggling to survive in the patriarchal world of fascist Spain. In the Spanish fascist society of the 1940s as reflected in Pan’s Labyrinth, women are valued mainly as producers of children, nurturers and cleaners. Captain Vidal, patriarchy incarnate, does not allow any female initiative. Throughout the film, the Captain asserts his dominance and oppresses the women to show they are inferior. He enforces passivity on the mother Carmen and sets rules for the daughter Ofelia. The captain is confident that his child is a boy. When the doctor questions this, the Captain goes into a rage. To him, a boy has value, initiative, desire, while a girl is nothing.
The three main female characters react differently to the male oppression. The Mother, Carmen, obeys Captain Vidal, and as a consequence, she is disempowered, growing sick from her pregnancy. Carmen’s illness represents the danger of giving in to oppression, of blind obedience. Carmen … she puts her daughter in the same objectified position as she herself has been put by the Captain, for example when she wants Ofelia to wear a party dress to look pretty, just like the Captain only values women for their outward beauty and not their inward personality. Ofelia however, disobeys these patriarchal demands. She refuses to wear a dress, and she challenges Vidal’s authority by refusing to call him father. Mercedes is also an active female character in the movie. During the course of the film she is stealing supplies from Vidal and giving them to the rebels that are held up in the forest. She disobeys and fights the power of fascism and patriarchy.
Ofelia’s quest in the fantasy-land is also connected to the theme of female empowerment. She faces horrible male creatures, such as the Pale Man, and here the faun acts as an authoritative father figure, mirroring Captain Vidal. When the faun tells Ofelia to hurt her baby brother to open the portal to the underworld, she refuses, once again disobeying the demands of a male oppressor. This disobedience turns out to be what ultimately makes her pass the final test and reach her real parents, the rulers of the underworld.
Moreover, the film contains symbolism of female sexuality. Ofelia exits the world of childhood and emerges into a new world of adult responsibilities, anxieties, and pleasures. Ofelia wears a dress inspired by the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, another fairy tale which uses symbolism to explore female sexuality. The faun adds to the theme of sexuality, as he resembles the ancient Greek deity Pan, who is primarily known for his sexual prowess. Furthermore, the entrance to the tree is shaped like a vaginal opening with its curved branches resembling fallopian tubes. Del Toro uses the fairy tale smartly; when most fairy tales are about repressing or restricting female sexuality, Pan’s Labyrinth uses fairy tale and fantasy tropes to explore themes of budding sexuality, individuality, and independence. Ofelia functions as an empowering representation of a young female hero who, in discovering disobedience, is capable of subverting the norms of female behaviour.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterly fairy tale with a broad spectrum of themes and lots of motifs and symbolism. It is a dark twist on a traditional fairy tale, it is a depiction about Spanish fascism, it is a story about a girl’s sexual development, and a feminist film of female empowerment.