Karen Discovers That There Is No David Bowie to Be Found in Pan's Labyrinth.

by Karen Gsteiger

HUGE spoilers within.

Okay, so with this article, I may just be opening Pandora's Box, assuming that my friend Padraig lives up to his promise to write a counterpoint article.

Pan's Labyrinth was the sort of film that looked right up my alley. It will be no surprise to anyone who knows how utterly obsessed I am with Terry Gilliam that the concept of imagination opposing and sometimes conquering harsh reality is a theme that fascinates me and informs my own work as a writer. (Never mind the fact that I went a long, long time without writing anything.) Pan's Labyrinth is the story of a young girl, Ofelia, who is coming of age in Franco's Spain. She travels with her pregnant mother to a rural military post to live with her unbelievably evil fascist stepfather. Her stepfather has been charged with crushing the remnants of a guerilla rebellion in the forests, so much cruelty and sadism and torture ensues. (Not horrendously graphic, but there were some points where my eyes were tightly shut.) Meanwhile, Ofelia, who is largely left to her own devices due to her mother's difficult pregnancy and her stepfather's cold indifference, encounters an underground kingdom filled with fauns and other fantastic creatures. She is told that she is the lost princess of the kingdom and must complete three perilous tasks to reign once again. So basically, the movie is split between Ofelia's grim adventures and the even harsher reality that she lives in.

After reading some reviews (but taking care not to spoil the story for myself), I was expecting the movie to be harsh in places, but goddamn. Make no mistake, this is a dark movie. A dark movie with a dark ending. It feels pretty relentless at times, and I lay awake after I got home that night, feeling deeply unsettled.

Mostly because Ofelia dies at the end.

Child death is hard to swallow in a film. The death of a child protagonist...um, I don't think I've ever seen it before. I didn't cry during the film, but the story definitely haunted me. Now granted, the story could be interpreted in a happier way, depending on how strongly you believe in fairy tales, as we see Ofelia become the princess of her underground kingdom, but she still totally, totally dies.

Which I think is a bit excessive.

But I'm hesitant to agree with Padraig, who accuses director Guillermo del Toro of being overly emotionally manipulative. I think that Franco's Spain deserves to be depicted in all its cruelty. I mean, why include it as an element of the story at all if it's going to be whitewashed? The villain of the story is incredibly sadistic, but that's in the spirit of authentic fairy tales, which can be very violent and disturbing. The focus of the story is Ofelia attempting to hold on to her childhood innocence in impossible and cruel circumstances. She may not understand everything that's going on around her, but she experiences fascism through the brutal indifference of her stepfather's interactions with her and her mother. Her fantasy world is also dark and dangerous, which is informed by her real-world circumstances. At times her circumstances become overwhelming, and fantasy abandons her, but she does not completely lose her ability to escape an unrelenting reality. In the end, she does triumph, even though she loses her life, as her final fantasy celebrates family, love, kindness, and the sacrifice of oneself for the innocent--the qualities that are in direct opposition to fascism. Also, in her fantasy at the end, she is rewarded for disobeying the faun's orders, which demonstrates that she understands what is wrong with fascism's conformity and blind adherence to regulations and orders. I really wish that del Toro had given Ofelia the chance to survive Franco's Spain...because Spain did eventually survive Franco, and there was a place for Ofelia's innocence and courage in the human world.

I guess that if this review sounds more like a one-sided argument, well, it is. I just hope that Padraig contributes his thoughts about this film, which at the very least has provoked more actual discussion than any movie I've seen in a long time.

Let's get ready to rumble! (Just kidding.)