Life and death are central themes in Pan’s Labyrinth. In the beginning, we see an immortal princess enter into the mortal world, which leads her to die as a mortal. She is reborn years later as Ofelia, who can only return to the immortal world once she dies in the mortal one. These events are somewhat contradictory, but they examine the theme of life and death in a fantastical way.
The theme of death is also explored through Ofelia's parents. When the film starts, Ofelia's father is already dead and Carmen, her mother, is about to remarry Vidal. Carmen is quite sickly in pregnancy, and eventually ends up dying in childbirth, leaving Ofelia to fend for herself in Vidal's abusive household.
Fantasy versus Reality
Ofelia is an exceedingly imaginative young woman, who prefers to spend her time reading fairy tale stories rather than facing the pragmatics of the real world. Her penchant for fantasy is pathologized by the adults in her life, who see her as avoiding the hard truths of the world. For instance, when Carmen finds the mandrake root under her bed, she scolds Ofelia and tells her, "You're getting older, and you'll see that life isn't like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you'll learn that, even if it hurts." In Carmen's formulation of life, adulthood is a time to put away foolish notions and accept the hardships of life without the delusion of fantasy.
Of course, as del Toro imagines it, Carmen is incorrect. In Ofelia's world, fairy tales are real. While she must face the harsh realities of adulthood, getting shot dead by Vidal at the end, it is this act of adult violence that delivers her to her rightful place in the fantastical underworld of which the faun told her.
Ofelia's family life in real life leaves a great deal to be desired. Her father is dead, and her mother is remarrying an evil and ruthless fascist who abuses her. Her mother has grown sickly in pregnancy, and can hardly stand up for herself, let alone the young Ofelia. Thus, Ofelia must find allegiances with people outside her family, like Mercedes.
Running parallel to Ofelia's tragic family life is the promise made to her by the faun: that she is in fact the princess of the underworld, Princess Moanna. Throughout the film, Ofelia completes the tasks from the faun's magic book in the hopes of being reunited with a family she cannot remember.
Captain Vidal is the living embodiment of the fascist political structure of Francoist Spain. Not only is he fighting to exterminate the guerrilla rebels who are defending republican ideals in Spain, but he carries out his private affairs with a dictatorial control and ruthlessness that match his political leanings.
The film looks at the struggle between republican rebels and Francoism during the Spanish Civil War against a fantastical backdrop. At one point, Doctor Ferreiro says to Vidal, "To obey like that, for the sake of obeying, without questioning, only people like you can do that," as a way of criticizing his Francoist leanings. The film is concerned with examining the ways people follow the orders of dictators unquestioningly, and suggests that it is wiser for individuals to develop self-determination and direction.
While gender is not an explicit theme in the film, the central characters are female, struggling to survive and thrive in a world ruled by violent and controlling men. Ofelia is the primary protagonist, fighting to escape the control of Vidal, a patriarchal figure who at one point says he values the life of his unborn son and heir more than the life of his wife. If Vidal's patriarchal attitudes represent fascism, Ofelia and Mercedes' struggle to break free from his control represents a feminine revolt against male dominance.
Creating your own opportunities
Ofelia often finds herself in situations where she has no options. She is locked up, urged to be more placid and obedient than her large imagination would normally lead her to be. The faun of the labyrinth often comes to her aid, providing her with the tools to change her situation, but he also gives her the gift of self-empowerment. When she complains to him about being locked in her bedroom, he hands her a piece of chalk and urges to create her own door. While this refers to the magical properties of the chalk, it is also symbolic of Ofelia's ability to create her own opportunities for survival and escape. The faun is effectively encouraging Ofelia to become more creative in her ability to imagine her own fate.
The theme of rebellion is seen most explicitly in the characters of the guerrilla rebels who are hiding in the forest surrounding Vidal's encampment. They represent the people who are willing to fight and potentially die for their ideals in the face of a restrictive and corrupt ruling class.
Additionally, Ofelia is a rebellious character, rebelling against the limits placed on her imagination by the adult world, and her insistent belief in magic. Finally, at the end of the film, she rebels against the instructions of the faun and refuses to spill the blood of her baby brother, instead sacrificing herself to Vidal's bullet. Her own blood is adequate to transport her back to the underworld, and we see that Ofelia's rebellious spirit causes her to die in the mortal world, but also delivers her to the fantastical paradise that she has been seeking.
Pan’s Labyrinth Questions and Answers
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