Entering Pan’s Labyrinth

Greg Stallings demonstrated in an International Cinema lecture how Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth draws from different traditions to better depict the past.

Pan's LabyrinthPROVO, Utah (October 27, 2015)—Ranging from seemingly innocent to unapologetically dark, fairy tales have helped us to make sense of the world—or at least come to terms with it. They teach lessons and pass on values, and sometimes they can help us to heal from the past. Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale film Pan’s Labyrinth strives for that, but on a national level as well as personal level.

The film takes place in Spain, 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil war and the rise of Francisco Franco. Eleven-year-old Ofelia moves to live with her new stepfather, a brutal commander in the Spanish army assigned to hunt down republican rebels still fighting after the war’s end. In her new home, Ofelia finds a portal into the enchanted underworld, where she meets the faun, who sets her on a series of challenges to prove that she is actually the underworld’s princess.

Greg Stallings, who presented the movie at the International Cinema, explained that the film is a combination of two distinct movements in Spanish cinema. Though distinct, both movements are reactions to Spain’s past.

The first, Postmodern Collage, began immediately after Franco’s death in 1975 and the reinstatement of the Spanish monarchy. The movement was intended as a way to forget about the horrors of the past – specifically those of the Civil War and the Franco Regime. As Spain made the transition to democracy, filmmakers and authors tended to create ironic, ahistorical works set in the present.

Pan’s Labyrinth draws from this style, especially in its more fantastic elements. The Underworld is idealized compared to the real world, with bright colors contrasting with the real world’s grey palette and escape from the real world’s pain.

The second movement, La Memoria Historica, did not come about until 2000. Rather than ignore the past, films in this movement were steeped in it, frequently featuring survivors of past atrocities and their stories. Films like The Orphanage, The Others and Volver belong to this tradition, and horror is a common genre for directors who chose to examine how the past continues to shape the present.

Another common trait of La Memoria Historica is its being a tool for vindication. Outraged that Franco was allowed to rule for so long and die peacefully, many filmmakers have inserted Franco figures into their work to suffer in the former dictator’s place. Pan’s Labyrinth does this through Ofelia’s step-father, showing his brutality and ultimately his comeuppance, and depicting the republican rebels as saintly martyrs.

While the film’s end has left many filmgoers confused with its ambiguity, that is exactly how del Toro intended it. He once explained that the movie “should tell something different to everyone. It should be a matter of personal discussion.” Just like history, there is no one right answer. Every individual must decide what it will mean for them.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the International Cinema for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.