by Brandie Ashe
To say that Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 fantasy El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) borrows from Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novel Alice in Wonderland is an understatement. But this film is no kids’ tale. Whereas Alice’s adventure serves as a relatively tame diversion from the rigors of boring school lessons, Labyrinth’s sumptuously visual wonderland is, by necessity of the subject matter, a wholly darker, and far deadlier, place.
Taking place during the post-Civil War era in Spain, amid the ongoing struggles between soldiers of the Franco-controlled government and guerilla fighters (the “maquis”), Pan’s Labyrinth focuses on Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), brings her to live in an old mill in the countryside that serves as a base of command for her new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Vidal, a cruel and sadistic commander who has been tasked with hunting down the “maquis,” cares little for his new family; his only concern is for the healthy delivery of his soon-to-arrive son, even if it comes at the expense of his bride’s life.
During their trip to their new home, Ofelia encounters a large insect which she instinctively recognizes as a fairy, and later that evening follows the fairy into the crumbling stone labyrinth behind the mill. There she encounters a faun, who claims that she is the lost “Princess Moanna,” who long ago her father’s underworld kingdom for the surface, lost her memory, and died. Per the story, it was foretold that the princess’s spirit, residing in the body of another, would one day find her way back to the underworld, and the faun gives Ofelia three tasks to complete in order to prove that she is indeed the reincarnation of the long-lost princess.
Ofelia’s fantastical journey is woven quite beautifully and skillfully with the grittier real-life plot surrounding Vidal’s attempt to crush the guerrilla resistance, even when the reality of Ofelia’s quest is challenged in the film’s heartbreaking denouement. It’s little wonder that the faun’s fairy story appeals greatly to young Ofelia, who seeks to escape the sorrow of her father’s death, and the nightmare of her mother’s remarriage to the evil Vidal, through a handful of cherished books that function as her portal to another world (literally, as it turns out, when the faun gives her a magical book that reveals the secrets of her designated tasks). On an allegorical level, Ofelia’s attempts to regain what “Princess Moanna” has lost reflects her desires to regain the life she herself lost to the rigors of war; imagination is her salvation, the means to restore a sense of order to her chaotic world.
In that way, she is somewhat the opposite of Carroll’s Alice, who escapes her more orderly world into the disordered tumble of Wonderland. But there are nonetheless distinct similarities between the two characters that are inescapable. Like Carroll’s Alice, Ofelia thinks nothing of darting off in chase of a curious creature: here, a stick insect in lieu of a white rabbit. And Ofelia’s first task, in which she must climb inside the roots of a cavernous fig tree and retrieve a golden key from the belly of a giant toad, is reminiscent of Alice’s shimmying down the rabbit hole (and as if to further underscore the connection between the two girls, Ofelia sports a pinafore that looks remarkably identical to the one traditionally worn by Alice in most film adaptations).
Still, Ofelia differs greatly from Carroll’s rather naive Alice in that, having experienced firsthand the more dangerous aspects of life, she is better equipped to handle the oddities with which she is presented, and more readily accepts them as fact than a curious fiction. [And for the sake of argument (because yes, it could be argued that Ofelia’s adventure is a mere hallucination, a fabrication that she invented to cope with the horrors of war which surrounded her), let’s presume that the faun is real, the quest an actuality rather than a daydream.] Ofelia does not question the faun’s proclamation that she is the princess, instead embracing the idea wholeheartedly. She obeys nearly every instruction, and unlike Alice, Ofelia suffers very real consequences when she neglects to do so—for her fantasy world is no more an escape from the looming threat of death than “real life” itself.
Indeed, Ofelia must balance completion of the faun’s quest with the equally dangerous business of simply surviving life in the Captain’s household. With an insight that belies her youth, Ofelia instinctively knows that she cannot reveal what she knows about Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), the housekeeper who spies on Vidal for the rebels; just as surely, she understands that revealing the existence of the magical mandrake root (which the faun gave her to “cure” her mother’s difficult pregnancy) will enrage the superstitious Captain. Indeed, if anything “proves” the faun’s claim that Ofelia harbors an ancient soul, it is this preternatural wisdom of hers, and the sense that into a mere decade of existence, she has crammed a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about how the world truly works.
But then, this is what war does. Its horrific lessons prompt premature “wisening”; it makes adults of the youngest of children, aging them before their time, stealing innocence and replacing it with fear and hopelessness and resignation. And yet, as Pan’s Labyrinth comes to an end, Ofelia escapes that fate—for though she is ultimately sacrificed on the altar of the labyrinth, Ofelia completes her quest, earns her rewards, and manages to find peace in a world in which it remains in short supply. Tragic, yes. But hopeless? Far from it.