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Into the Moral Labyrinth
A Theological Review of Pan's Labyrinth


Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is a new fairy tale, but it's also from the pre-Disney world of fairy tales. As such it is magical, brutal, gruesome, mysterious, and full of wonder. This movie is honest about its R rating and is definitely not for the faint of heart. It is also one of the best cinematic studies of dealing with violence I have seen in quite some time.

The film is set in 1944 Fascist Spain right after the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia, a young girl, and her pregnant mother go to stay at a military outpost to be with Ofelia's new stepfather and the father of her unborn sibling. Her new stepfather is a Captain charged with hunting down the remaining rebels hiding out in the woods and he does so brutally and without remorse.

Ofelia is entranced by fairy tales which she reads constantly. She finds an ancient labyrinth in the woods near the compound which she visits one night. At the center of the labyrinth she encounters a faun who tells her she is the long-lost daughter of the King of the Underworld and gives her three tasks to prove her royal lineage. These are also a test to make sure that her soul hasn't gone native to this realm and that she is still worthy of her royal title.

[Warning: Major spoilers follow. I completely give away the ending. Read on only if you've seen the film or never intend to do so. You've been warned.]

The bulk of the movie deals with one question: How does one contend with overwhelming, tyrranical violence? The Captain, Ofelia's stepfather, uses violence as a tool to achieve his goals, professional and personal, and he does it without apology or, apparently, feeling. Ofelia's labyrinthine winding path consists not only of doing the tasks assigned to her by the faun, but also trying to keep out of the way of her tyrranical stepfather.

Many people make hard choices regarding how to deal with the Captain's violence. The rebels, of course, engage in a deadly game of hide and seek with him. Mercedes, a housekeeper in the compound, secretly helps the rebels and tries to do her job without being found out as a spy. A doctor, likewise, is serving the Captain by helping out his new, ailing, pregnant wife and helping the rebels in the woods.

One of the most poignant moments in the film is when the doctor helps a torture victim die in defiance of the Captain's orders. When confronted by the Captain he calmly tells him that to "obey for obey's sake... That's something only people like you do." He then takes up his doctor's bag and walks away and is summarily executed by the Captain.

In the end Ofelia has a similar choice. She is told that she can enter the fairy realm and become a princess if she allows the faun to spill the blood of her newborn brother. She refuses, even with the knowledge that her bloodthirsty stepfather is pursuing her and choosing not to sacrifice her brother means her almost certain death. Indeed, she sacrifices herself for her brother.

The film concludes with wondrous ambiguity. Ofelia both reassumes her throne in the fairy realm exactly because of her selflessness and, simultaneously, lies dying in the arms of the bereaved Mercedes.

The movie's tag line - "Innocence has a power evil cannot imagine." - points directly to the core gospel message of the story. Evil cannot be overcome by evil, but only by good. Ofelia succeeds not because she succumbs to the violence around her, but because she will not be corrupted by it. In the end, like the doctor, she defies her stepfather with the knowledge he can kill her. But what he does not know is that he cannot take her life.

The comparisons to Jesus' contending with the powers of the world are almost too obvious. Like Ofelia, Jesus lives in a land that is tyrannized and occupied. Like Ofelia, Jesus believes that his true source, his true father, is not of this world. Like Ofelia, Jesus confronts those who wield violence brutally and without remorse and tells them that they have no power over him. Like Ofelia, Jesus is tempted many times to stray from the path.

One could watch this film and think it is an indictment of Christianity and a glorification of Paganism, but I think that would be a shallow reading. The outward church is treated with obvious contempt in the film by depicting clergy who collaborate with the powers of the time. Likewise the film lifts up many seemingly occult or pagan symbols in a more or less positive way. But at its core this film is a retelling of basic Christian principles.

While I flinched a lot at the violence of this film, I found the story, the message, and the imagery extremely compelling. I expect to see the faun and the labyrinth in my thoughts, my dreams, and my nightmares for weeks to come.

[The fantasy images from the film are very compelling. I'm currently using the image at the top of this post as my desktop.]


First, thanks for the spoiler alert and page break! Very classy and much appreciated. I saw it yesterday, and agree it is a masterpiece.

Which doesn't mean I was having a good time the whole movie. I was actually kind of bummed. It's rare one sees a movie while knowing absolutely nothing about it: no previews, no plot, etc, so it unfolds from a blank slate the way the director intended. So when I can, I try to see critically acclaimed movies (and a positive review from you counts, of course) knowing as little as possible.

So I kind of thought it would be pleasant and fantastical, not so brutal!
Oh well, at least it was a great movie. And so unsentimental about what a dark and scary place childhood can be.

The film had a lot of cool things about it, but didn't pull together by the end. Ofelia was a dope beyond belief. In one adventure she's warned, "Whatever you do, don't eat the food!" and what does she do? And Mercedes not killing the captain when she had the perfect opportunity? What's with that?
The fantasy had no impact on the reality; what good is it for Ofelia to learn to think for herself if she's dead? How did she succeed other than make it to princess status in the afterlife, which probably wasn't real? She did absolutely nothing for her baby brother; he would have been fine if she'd left him. She wasn't a hero, she was inconsequential.
The movie is a triumph of sleight-of-hand; everyone's raving about it because of its exotic setting and imagery, but really Del Toro had no idea why he made the film. If he's telling us "don't blindly obey," he should have produced a bumper sticker.

Hawkman, you make two really good points. I winced when Ofelia ate from the Paleman's table but I also understood it entirely. People rarely do what they are told to do and often when they are told specifically not to do something they do just that very thing. Further, being the father of a nine-year-old boy, this kind of behavior doesn't surprise me at all.

I agree with you on the Mercedes account. Actually, when I first saw the movie I thought that she had killed him. I wasn't the only one. Maria, my pal in cringing, thought the same thing.

Still, I really like the film and the more I think about it the more I like it. Fairy tales and parables are full of strange and seemingly contradictory behavior on the part of their protagonists. Frodo was told, after all, never to put on the ring under any circumstance and he broke that rule more than once.

I am amazed - and saddened - to see the accolades heaped upon this film. Yes it is a beautifully crafted fairy tale. But it also perpetuates "eye for an eye..." and totally ignores that violence begets violence.

The rationale that executing wounded soldiers (because they belong to the "bad" guys) is ok, is exactly what led to scenes of one of our "own" good boys executing a wounded man in the now famous newsclip from Iraq. The film while purporting to abhor violent men like the captain, takes great pleasure in maximizing every opportunity to graphically satisfy our need for blood atonement.

Wow, A, did we watch the same film? The film I saw culminated with a young girl facing down evil and violence with nothing but her resolve and self-sacrifice. The film I saw spoke to the futility and the ultimate failure of violence. Interesting.

A, in deference to your point of view, here is an excellent review by Jennifer Schuberth of the Martin Marty Center. She seems to agree with you, and I can see her point. I would argue, though, that the climax of the film was not when Captain Vidal gets shot, but when Ofelia defies him. The heroes of this story were not those who used violence, but those eschewed violence. I don't have any sense of victory in the Captain's death and I think it to be part of the denoument of the film.

And for yet another point of view, because I like dialogue, here is a modern pagan perspective on the film.

Ironic1, yes we did watch the same film. Really I'm just reacting to what is actually two issues:

First, I think that the level of graphic violence to which we are commonly exposed, is pornographic. Brutality can - and has been - succesfully portrayed in the arts w/out the need for such an incredible level of realism. For some reason ($$) we now can expect to see entry wounds and the splatter of brain matter in the interest of "realism".

Secondly, although it is true that only Ophelia's "pure heart" gains her entry into the the "heavenly" kingdom (and triumph over evil) I still find it offensive to have our emotions manipulated in such a manner that no I've spoken with who has seen the movie seems to notice or care that the Captain is summarily executed or that soldiers are seen being "finished off" after the shoot out. I believe that to be morally wrong, and in the context of a movie that is purported to "teach" us some moral truth, it is very disturbing. Demonizing others, is *exactly* the same technique which the Captain used and which is often used to justify violence against others in our own modern world.

Can you reasonably criticize the movie for failing to be pacifist? The characters were in the middle of war, they were all in a kill-or-be-killed situation. It would be cool to see a film in which pacifists triumph (When was the last one, "Ghandi"?) but it didn't happen in the Spanish Civil War.
Probably the film would have made more sense if, say, Ofelia's fairy tales taught her the value of mercy, and she in turn taught that to the everyone else, but then it wouldn't be much of a horror movie. ("Saw III" was about learning the value of mercy, but it was a piece o' crap.)

Hmmm... busted!! Yes, I do come to the table from what is oft termed a 'pacifist' POV. I like "peaceful resistance" myself (i.e. nothing passive about it!), but that's food for another whole discussion. I spent two years teaching in a max security prison, and that experience taught me first-hand that there are truly evil people. Yet I still object to the death penalty on moral grounds. So again, yes, as "entertainment" it's a great movie - carefully crafted, very well acted, beautifully filmed and scripted - but I don't buy into the message delivered (or the medium as another commentator has said) without some concerns.

As to whether "it happened" (pacifism triumphing over evil) during the Spanish Civil War? I will continue to argue that the subject is still relevant and that our moral response to a given situation should not depend on circumstance. I believe that to be the root cause of our perpetual cycle of violence. I would also hope that it DID occur, albeit perhaps not on such a scale as to have ended the conflict. The same I suspect can be said about any conflict (Hotel Rwanda comes to mind).

Anyway... a discussion I'd like to have sometime, but tedious at best in this format. I'll leave my previous comments to hopefully stimulate a critical assessment of the movie's "moral" lesson. Thanks...

A, I struggle with whether or not I would call myself a "pacifist." There are times in my life I have, and times I haven't. I am a real believer in non-violent action, however, as you can probably ascertain.

I really appreciate your comments and hawkman's as well. I'm glad my post has generated discussion.

This is getting off-topic here (but so what?) but "pacifism" is commonly misinterpreted as "passive-ism." To "pacify" is to bring about peace. It's not just a matter of peacefully resisting, it's bringing about constructive change. Thus pacifists are really activists.

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