When I heard late last year that film director Guillermo del Toro had created a dark fairy tale, titled Pan’s Labyrinth in its international distribution, a film which he not only directed but wrote the story for, I couldn’t wait to see it. However, this involved a problem for me. While I am a fan of such things, much of my family is not. (My youngest son will watch a few horror and science fiction movies with me, but this is not the case with my wife and daughter.) Not wanting to watch the film by myself I had to wait until the film was released on DVD. That patient waiting ended this week when I was able to rent the DVD and watch the film Tuesday night.
I have posted on this film previously, but only in making comments on how this film has resonated with many in the Neo-Pagan community, and how it draws upon myth and archetype in popular culture. In this post I’d like to provide some of my own thoughts on the film, and as I do I will interact with some of the commentary on the film on the Internet.
I begin with the only appropriate place in such an analysis, and that is with the film itself taken on its own terms as it tells its story. Pan’s Labyrinth is a story that takes place against the backdrop of fascist Spain in 1944. The movie begins much like any children’s fairy tale with the opening narration that describes a princess of the Underworld who has forgotten who she is and may reincarnate into human form. The audience is then introduced to Ofelia, a little girl with a great love for fairy tales. She and her pregnant mother are traveling to meet Vidal, their new stepfather and husband, the brutal Captain of a fascist militia. But along the way, as their travel takes a brief pause along a roadside, Ofelia discovers an ancient carving out of which comes a large insect that at first frightens her, but then quickly captures her interest. This introduction sets the stage for a parallel tale of two worlds through which Ofelia must navigate, the violent world of fascist Spain and her stepfather’s evil, and the world of fairytale involving a faun, fairies, and a mysterious labyrinth.
I won’t provide more of the storyline for those who have yet to see it, but as I watched the film I had several differing impressions. The first was a sense of marvel and wonder at the fantasy world that del Toro created for Ofeila to explore. The look and “feel” of this world reminded me of many fairy tales I have heard myself, and it resembled the best of them created in film through the years. I also felt great empathy and sympathy for Ofelia: empathy in her love for fair ytales and the unseen, and sympathy for her as she struggled to come to terms with the evil and inhumanity that surrounded her. This is a great film that can be enjoyed on any number of levels, and these demonstrate why it won three Academy Awards, although it should have received an award for del Toro’s screenplay.
Prior to viewing the film I had not ready any commentary on it, other than a few thoughts expressed on Neo-Pagan blogs. I wanted to stay away from other viewpoints until I had seen the film myself and had a chance to develop my own impressions before writing down some commentary. Having seen the film I then did some Internet research and the following represents my own thoughts in interaction with those of others.
First, it is interesting to note that the film received general positive acclaim from critics. This is a notable achievement in light of the film’s genre and that it is a Spanish film with English subtitles. Perhaps even more surprising is that the film has been well received by those from differing religious and spiritual traditions, the film receiving praise from both Neo-Pagan blogs like The Wild Hunt, and Christianity Today magazine. (Thankfully, I was only able to find one reactionary Christian perspective on the film that linked it to Satanism and pedophilia!) But the differing interpretations of the film lead to my second commentary topic.
An interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle commented on how this film has been embraced by many from differing religions. The article states that the film “is not explicit about its images, prompting Christians, pagans and others to claim the movie as a parable about their own beliefs.” With the differing opinions surfacing as to the proper way to interpret the film, where can we turn for interpretive insights? The appropriate starting place is with the film itself, and del Toro who wrote and directed the film, before moving to subjective possibilities and applications.
National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program did an interesting interview with del Toro that sheds light on a number of facets of this film, including its interpretation(s). In the interview del Toro acknowledges that the story lends itself to multiple interpretations. A review of various media treatments of the film demonstrates two differing interpretations, with the first and most dominant one seeing Ofelia’s fairytale world as subjective escapism from the harsh realities of her life with her stepfather. Another interpretation understand the fairytale realm to be real, but that only those with a special gift like Ofelia can see and access it. The film provides for both interpretative possibilities. For example near the end of the film as Ofelia flees from her stepfather into the labyrinth, he eventually catches up with her and sees her having a dialogue with the faun, but he cannot see the faun. This might lead to the interpretation that the fairy tale only exists subjectively in the mind of Ofelia. However, just moments before this the labyrinth opens magically for Ofelia to provide a temporary means of escape that forces Captain Vidal to find another pathway to find Ofelia. This lends itself to the interpretation that Ofelia’s fantasy world is real, but that only she has the ability to see and interact with it. While both interpretations are possible, other clues in the film lend themselves to the latter being the best interpretation, such as the magical chalk door drawn by Ofelia that is visible to Mercedes. Del Toro has commented in a Twitch interview that this and other clues point toward the reality of the fantasy world.
Beyond the consideration of elements within the film it is helpful to consider del Toro’s perspective. In the NPR interview he states that “I believe her tale not to be just a reflection from the world around her, but, to me, she really turns into the princess.” These interpretive considerations are significant in that the significance and reality of an unseen fantasy and magical realm as connected with the contemporary spiritual quest in the Western world seems to be at odds with lingering skeptical views that understand such things as mere subjective escapism, a psychological projection or Noble Lie for the weak-minded who cannot deal with the harsh realities of life. Del Toro seems to disagree with such interpretations, and there are many others who would agree with him.
This leads to consideration of the best interpretation of the framework of Ofelia’s fantasy world. Is it best understood as reflecting Neo-Paganism or Christian influences? This question is important not only in light of the differing interpretations that have been put forward, but also in light of the unfortunate tendency for Christians to read Christian ideas and motifs into films. Del Toro provides the definitive answer to this question in an interview he gave to GreenCine:
GreenCine: She [Ofelia] has a pantheist view of the world.
del Toro: It’s completely pagan. She reflects nothing more and nothing less than the way I viewed the world as a kid. I was brought up Catholic but my personal cosmology was completely pagan.
Green Cine: How do you explain that?
del Toro: I have no idea, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Mexico and Spain have a certain view of life that is similar in the sense that they have death, brutality, the nature – you know, you live with them and you embrace them in a different way than First World countries would. With syncretism in Latin America, you can embrace a religion by mixing it with your own gods. And then, there’s a lot of Celtic culture in the north of Spain, and there are a lot of beautiful pagan legends in Galicia, and in Asturias and in all those places. They combine them with the Catholic religion very cleanly.
From these comments it is clear that Ofelia’s fairytale world reflects a Pagan background, and while there may be elements to the story that find common ground with Christianity, it is inappropriate to view the film as a Christian parable. These comments, along with statements made by del Toro in his NPR interview, are also interesting in that they shed light not only on the film, but also on the writer and director’s own views on fantasy and spirituality. A portion of the interview is heart-wrenching as del Toro describes growing up with a stern Catholic grandmother who saw his identification with monsters and fairy tales as somehow demonic. These experiences, coupled with his work in a morgue, the kidnapping of his father, and his reflections on the Spanish Civil War, all shaped his negative views of Catholicism and organized religion, so much so that in the interview he says he had to jettison the belief that there was an ordering Being beyond the universe and that as a result “we are all on our own.” As I listened to this interview two things struck me. First, it was a reminder of the significance of our social location and life experiences in shaping our perspectives on life, religion, and spirituality. Second, I wonder how del Toro’s grandmother might have been shaped differently had she been able to experience and embrace the “baptized imagination” of other Catholics like J. R. R. Tolkien?
Del Toro also made another set of interesting comments in the NPR interview. As he reflected on his stern Catholic upbringing he commented on “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” but also talked about his “accepting monsters into his heart” as an imaginative young boy. Del Toro discusses this in almost dichotomous fashion, wherein we accept monsters and fairy tales to explain reality as children but are then expected to jettison such beliefs in favor or religion as we get older. In del Toro’s life he eventually abandoned his Catholic beliefs in a return to monsters and fairy tales which he sees as saving his sanity, but what about those of us who don’t see this as a dichotomy and maintain both aspects of faith and spiritual vision? While I recognize that many Christians and institutions within Christendom have done some very evil things, I make a distinction between them and the teachings, example, and spiritual pathway of Jesus. For me Jesus represents a viable and vibrant spirituality for the twenty-first century. But in a sense not only have I “accepted Jesus into my heart,” I have also “accepted monsters into my heart.” By this I mean that I also maintain a sense of awe, wonder, mystery, and imagination that is symbolized by fairy tales and monsters, and this co-exists quite easily with the spiritual pathway of Jesus. Tolkien, Lewis, and others experienced the same kind of faith, so perhaps my views are not so off the beaten path, even though there may not be many Christians who balance these two elements.
Finally, I resonated with comments made by Jason Pitzl-Watters on his blog The Wild Hunt in connection with this film. He says, “I believe “Pan’s Labyrinth” presents a unique opportunity to discuss Pagan/polytheist theology in contrast to the dominant monotheisms.” I agree wholeheartedly, and I believe that given the influence of popular culture in shaping our views on life and spirituality, and the strong resonance of genres and aspects of film with various religious and spiritual communities that they can serve as bridges and forums for the discussion of important issues. Latter-day Saint cosmology has strong affinities with science fiction and fantasy, and Jason notes the affinities between Paganism and fantasy films like Pan’s Labyrinth. For these reasons I’d like to work cooperatively with like-minded representatives of various faith traditions to put together conferences on spirituality and film in order to discuss our common enjoyment of these films as well as our spiritualities.
With Pan’s Labryinth Guillermo del Toro has made a significant contribution to fantasy, fairytales, and folklore. Although some of the adults surrounding Ofelia deride fairy tales and say “You’re too old to be filling your head with such nonsense,” I hope our new century finds more adults engaging fairy tales as they embrace the imagination. Through this film del Toro has provided us with a key that opens up a new world of wonder that can begin this journey.