Fairies, an evil step-father, a faun
Guns, explosions, Fascists vs. the resistance, torture
Forbidden fruit, eternal life, blood atonement, sacrifice
So you have a fairy tale, a war movie and a Christian parable, all to be found in Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish language film -- elements that will certainly attract and repel viewers in equal numbers.
Lovers of fantasy may be lost when they learn of the graphic scenes of shootings, stabbings and battlefield surgery in Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Laberinto del Faurn). Enthusiasts of World War II might not be pleased to learn that the central character of the film is a little girl, given three tasks to prove that she is the princess of an underground kingdom. And I read critics who were not pleased that with the film’s Christian imagery.
The film is an adult fairy tale, and the criticism that fairy tales are for children is addressed within the film itself. Ofelia, the heroine of the story, is told by her mother and stepfather that she is too old for fairy tales. And yet she finds within her fantasies wisdom to live in a difficult and dangerous world. The moral clarity found in such tales is occasionally scoffed at by some grown-ups as simplistic. They argue the world never has any clear heroes or villains, black or white, only shades of grey. They would also argue that only the material world exists and it is foolish to believe in anything outside of what we can perceive through our senses.
I would argue that the stark contrasts between good and evil found in fairy tales can at times be found in the real world. In the Old Testament battles, God was on the good side in many of the battles between Israel and evil foes. During our Civil War, ultimately the side defending slavery was in the wrong. And in World War II, one side definitely could be defined as right and the other as wrong.
And those who believe that there is nothing beyond ourselves and what we can see and hear, touch and taste and smell, they have bought into a lie much darker and devoid of truth than any story Disney ever animated.
We are given a grim picture of what it was like to live under the repressive regime of Franco’s Spain during World War II. The government kept the people dependant on itself for foods and goods. One scene shows soldiers dispersing bread to citizens, and as they do they announce that the daily bread comes through the beneficence of the government. God’s providence is given no place in such a dictatorship.
The very worst of the government is personified through Ofelia’s stepfather, Capitan Vidal, a sadist shown torturing captives and casually killing the innocent. Those who would say such violence has no place in fairy tales just don’t know how grim the Brothers Grimm could be.
I found the most interesting aspect of the film was introduction of the theme of blood atonement. To avoid spoilers, I can’t tell too much about how this theme is used in the film, but it is there, with great Biblical resonance.
Hebrews 9: 22 says, “Without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins.” This essential Biblical doctrine at times seems like an outdated piece of myth and legend. But by placing this theme in the midst of a war, a time when the shedding of blood is a daily transaction, we are reminded of its truth.
We tend to think of sin as a petty offense that should be cleared up as one would pay for a parking ticket. The film reminds us that when dealing with issues such as life and death, war and sin, is not child’s play, but we do need childlike faith.