If you believe what many have written about this Academy Award–winning film—that the world of Pan and his labyrinth and his stories is a mirage that [End Page 345] eleven-year-old Ofelia conjures up to protect herself from Franco’s bloody Spain—don’t see the film. But if you’re up for a ride through the surrealistic realms of story, come along through the first door that opens. And in this wondrous film the doors just keep opening.
In Pan’s Labyrinth / El Laberinto del Fauno Guillermo del Toro of Guadalajara, Mexico, creates two parallel worlds that intersect for people such as Ofelia. One is 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, as Republicans keep trying to win back their country from the victorious Nationalists under General Francisco Franco and his dreaded Guardias Civil. Captain Vidal and his Nationalist soldiers are fighting against a small but determined group of Republican guerillas. Against doctors’ recommendations, Vidal has his wife, Carmen (who is about to give birth), and her daughter, Ofelia (from her earlier marriage), chauffeured to his headquarters in a ruined mill in the forest. The film’s other world reaches back before time, to the King and Queen of the Underworld, who await the return of their long-lost daughter, Princess Moanna. A faun and several spirits guard the labyrinth, the last open portal to the Underworld, waiting to guide the Princess through the three trials necessary for her to regain her rightful throne.
These two worlds make material what is true of orally told tales: although folktales are set in faraway realms, they are always also about our lives in the world at hand—human, contemporary, infinitely flawed. And that is why, in addition to all the other themes this multilayered film explores, it especially meditates on stories and storytelling. “Long ago in the Underground Realm,” the narrator begins, intoning the first words of the film and invoking timeless, castled pasts (p. 2, screenplay, www.dailyscript.com/scripts/PansLabyrinthEnglishScreenplay.pdf ).
And here, right at the start, unfolds one of the great pleasures of this film for those of us who love folktales: the chance to see on screen many favorite, resonant motifs and to experience “Oh, no” moments over and over because we know what’s coming. Or we think we do. As Carmen and Ofelia are driven deeper and deeper into the woods, toward their new husband and father, Carmen sees her daughter reading a large book. “Fairy tales?” Carmen smiles condescendingly. “You’re too old to be filling your head with such nonsense” (4). As soon as her words fade, she feels a wave of nausea and asks the driver to stop. Once out of the long black car, Ofelia finds a strange stone with an eye carved upon it. A breeze points her to a monolith bearing a faun figure who is missing an eye. We know: the mother, the pregnancy, the interdiction. And, of course, Ofelia re-places the stone in the hole.
Even as the narrator settles us into his story, del Toro unsettles us. For on the screen it is not a timeless, fairy-tale world alone that we see, but also people anchored in a particular historic moment, quite recognizable, rushing [End Page 346] along in a line of black Bentleys. Our pleasure lies not just in recognition of familiar motifs, but also in del Toro’s making the familiar strange. Through the intersection of the two parallel worlds, del Toro challenges our storied expectations and offers commentary on war, obedience, gender relations, and storytelling.
Settings play a major part in the dialogue between fairy-tale and contemporary worlds. Tossed in a heap in the tyrannical Captain Vidal’s study lay the gigantic mill wheel and wooden gears. The mill that provided flour and, thus, the staff of life itself now houses the Captain, who holds up a half loaf of bread, proclaiming that none in Franco...