Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the masterwork of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, is a violent, imaginative, ambiguous fairy tale suspended between the dramatic representation of a dark moment in Iberian history and a childlike, at times terrifying, imagery.

The story: It is 1944. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) has just moved with her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to live with her new stepfather, the Francoist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Vidal holds the task of suppressing a group of rebels in opposition to the new authoritarian regime, and this political affair is mirrored, indeed, by the girl’s magical journey. Guided by the folkloric figure of the faun (Doug Jones), she is called to face three tests designed to determine whether or not human vices have tainted her and whether or not she is worthy of returning to her enchanted realm. Through these three trials, Ofelia must face the truth of death, the threat of malice, and the meaning of sacrifice.

Since the film’s release in 2006, there has been no shortage of interpretations. It is common to debate about the actual reality of the enchanted world as opposed to the political context in which it is reflected. It is not rare for spectators to infer that the fantastical is nothing more than a representation of how fantasy can be a tool for coming to terms with complex realities. Yet, it is curious how it wasn’t in the director’s own intention to ascribe a doubting key to the magical world, much less to reduce the role of the fantastic to the almost negative conception of mere escapism.

But then, what functions does fantasy serve? What is the relationship between fantasy and reality? In the film, reality and fantasy are mirrored, overlapping, and constantly intertwined. The camera movements, and the soundtrack, accompany intangible transitions from one world to another, suggesting the absence of a boundary between them. Ofelia’s encounter with magic is accepted factually.

It is the narrator’s voice, in his very last words, that leads in a precise direction, referring directly to the act of seeing and to the virtue of knowing how to look as the tools that allow the spectator to understand the real meaning of Ofelia’s tale:

“And it is said that the Princess returned to her father’s kingdom. That she reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many centuries. That she was loved by her people. And that she left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.”

A simple yet perfect conclusion. A summary, in a nutshell, of what might be the real intent and philosophy of Master del Toro and of his work. A discourse suggested throughout the movie, beneath its surface, about what is our conception of reality, what humans share as reality, as much as what has been real in the past or what might be real in the future.

In many ways, the rules embraced by the filmmaker are the literary archetypes of magical realism. Magical realism is an artistic current characterized by the presence of unexpected, extraordinary, magical elements cast within plausible contexts. In this genre, the magical element needs no clarification or explanation, and their logic is not challenged. Past and present locations and characters can be reflected in each other. The concepts of believing and not believing are opposed, and not believing is sometimes incorporated by an oppressive and totalitarian government. The goal of magical realism is not to escape reality. But instead, aims to bring out, through intuition and reverie, all those aspects of reality that are apparently irrelevant and tend to remain hidden.

As mentioned, the view, and the gaze, play a central role from the first scene of the film to its last.

In one of the film’s early sequences, Ofelia is traveling with her mother to the camp where her stepfather is, along with their escort. In a brief stop due to her mother’s labor, the girl explores the surrounding area, coming across what looks like a stone, but has the shape of an eye engraved on it. She picks it up and is drawn before a stone sculpture, which is missing the very piece she picked up. Once repositioned, an insect emerges from the mouth of the statue, which Ofelia recognizes as a fairy.

This is the first manifestation of the importance given to the sense of sight and the necessity of having eyes to see, overcoming the senses, and attempting to glimpse that invisible world located under the surface. The article “Psycho-Critical Analysis of “Pan’s Labyrinth”: Myth, Psychology, Perceptual Realism, Eyes & Traumatic Despondency” helps in exploring this concept:

“Guillermo Del Toro almost seems to presuppose that the viewer needs a third “Zen” eye to capture the quintessential truths buried deep within the film’s archetypal margins. In other words, scientists and secularists need to leave the theater. When Ofelia returns the eye of the statue to its rightful place, her fantastical journey immediately begins. Her eyes allow her to see things both visible and invisible, real and unreal, which starkly contrasts with the fascist villain, Captain Vidal, one who punctures the eyes of others and believes not in what cannot be physically seen.”

The antagonist, the sadistic Captain Vidal, is not only a disturbing embodiment of fascism but represents the exaltation of all that is matter, of all that can be perceived and felt. He embodies patriarchy, militarism, and blind obedience, so much so that one of the first acts he is shown performing is crushing a boy’s eyes with a bottle, persisting until his death.

His magical counterpart is the Pale Man, an anthropomorphic monster with a pale, deformed, and eyeless face. Guarding a sumptuous banquet, his eyeballs are placed on a plate, and their use is limited to the need to locate intruders who violate his table. This is just one of many examples of the concatenation of the real and fantasy worlds. And it is curious the characterization of the wicked ones as those who exalt the material and ignore what is beyond their rules and perceptions.

In his own interviews, Guillermo del Toro has made it clear that, at least for him, there is no doubt about the argument. Everything we see in the film is real, and there are numerous clues left to that effect. Nothing that Ofelia experiences are reducible to something nonexistent. And magic and fantasy are not false salvations. The issue, according to del Toro, the issue is the narrowness of what is commonly accepted as real. Stories, and fantasy, carry as much weight in constructing who we are as what is perceivable with the five senses. They are no less tangible than constructs such as geography, boundaries, hierarchies, and time: other shared forms of collective fantasy labeled and accepted by the adult as reality but which do not have a more solid material foundation than the magical and the marvelous.

In conclusion, what Pan’s Labyrinth wants to invite the viewer to reflect on is not the truthfulness of the events depicted but rather our own conception of what is real and what is not—a push to accept what might be so, to challenge its limitations. The director’s intent is an invitation to embrace the improbable, the paradox, to observe more carefully, to have eyes to see, and not simply to look.

Related Read: All Guillermo Del Toro Movies Ranked

Pan’s Labyrinth Movie (2006) Links – IMDbRotten Tomatoes
Pan’s Labyrinth Movie (2006) Cast – Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López
Where to watch Pan's Labyrinth

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