Romanticism was a direct reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, and Guillermo del Toro's 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth reflects the ideals of romanticism as much as a work of art possibly can. As such, it is difficult to isolate individual passages, scenes or characters from the whole without doing an injustice to this enormously imaginative and highly surrealistic film. In contrast to the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason), which emphasized realism and reason, romanticism emphasizes horrific and occasionally catastrophic imagery intended to exaggerate phenomena and heighten emotional responses. It is not necessarily unrealistic -- on the contrary, romantic imagery can certainly reflect the reality of catastrophic situations -- but it does reject the notion of an ordered, rational universe, and it can, and often does, include fantastic imagery not found in nature but definitely representative of ancient mythology. Such is the case with Pan's Labyrinth. Del Toro visualized a world remote from the realities depicted in history books but one that offered a sobering indictment of the political developments in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
In conceptualizing and producing Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro included in his screenplay characters that would be out of place in a more realistic depiction of the Spain of Francisco Franco, that country's fascist dictator from the late 1930s until his death in 1975. Del Toro chose as his principle protagonist a young girl, Ofelia, whose mother has married an officer in Franco's military, a dedicated fascist named Captain Vidal. The mother, Carmen, is pregnant with the captain's baby, and it becomes apparent that her sole function in her new husband's life is to act as an incubator for the life inside her. Ofelia encounters mythological creatures, beginning with a fairy, which leads her to the faun, Pan, who, true to the pattern of ancient mythological assignments, instructs the girl to carry out certain tasks in exchange for which she will achieve immortality. The romantic imagery that dominates Pan's Labyrinth, then, assumes greater importance, especially when Ofelia visits the terrifying creature known as Pale Man, which consumes children and fairies and which seeks to similarly consume Ofelia in response to her violation of the faun's edict against eating any of Pale Man's food. These and other scenes are inspired by the mythology of ancient Greece, wherein the gods would typically assign a mortal a series of extraordinarily difficult and dangerous tasks and would punish them for transgressions. Ofelia is punished for her seemingly minor transgression (she consumes two of Pale Man's grapes), an act that angers the faun.
Ofelia is killed by her stepfather, Captain Vidal, after she attempts to flee with her baby brother, her mother having died during childbirth. Again, the young girl defies the orders of the mythical creatures into whose world she willingly descended. Rather than sacrifice her baby brother per the faun's instructions, which would have enabled her to enter a portal into the underworld and attain immortality, Ofelia sacrifices herself instead. In the end, the viewer is forced to accept that the mythological imagery was a product of Ofelia's imagination and that she could no more escape reality than could the victims of Franco's autocratic and brutal regime. A scene in the film in which Ofelia's mother, Carmen, takes issue with her daughter's obsession with magical imagery by tossing into a fire the mandrake Ofelia had protected, a plant associated with mysticism and that assumes life-like characteristics in the girl's mind, prompts the following exchange:
Carmen: You're getting older, and you'll see that life isn't like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you'll learn that, even if it hurts.
[throws the mandrake onto the fire]
Ofelia: No! No!
Carmen: Ofelia! Magic does not exist. Not for you, me or anyone else.
With this exchange between mother and daughter, del Toro is illuminating the gulf between Ofelia's reality and the alternative world into which she tries to escape in hopes of a happier existence. The horrific imagery that has dominated the sets on which del Toro has filmed his story and the artwork that was used to illustrate it are consistent with the anti-realism of the Romantic period. Even the film's haunting poster, which depicts a young girl approaching a massive tree that is shaped like a giant monster ready to engulf this innocent child, is evocative of romanticism in its use of catastrophic imagery and its rejection of conventionality. One cannot view Pan's Labyrinth and miss the connection to a time defined by such imagery.