Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of a young girl, 11-year-old Ofelia, the stepdaughter of a ruthless fascist military officer in Francisco Franco’s Spain. Pan’s Labyrinth fits squarely in the category of Romanticism by virtue of its use of surrealist images, fantasy and emotions employed against a backdrop of intense political violence waged by Franco’s forces against equally committed if morally-righteous anti-fascist rebels. Ofelia is an isolated, lonely figure trapped into a repressive atmosphere, as Captain Vidal, her emotionally distant and brutal stepfather, wields total authority over his little part of the world. Ofelia, in turn, retreats into a world of her own imagining. The film’s opening lines reflect the film’s Romantic theme. The mythological faun who guides Ofelia into the labyrinth in which she will encounter creatures both benevolent and horrific sets the story’s tone:
“A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from. Her body suffered cold, sickness, and pain. Eventually, she died. However, her father, the King, always knew that the Princess' soul would return, perhaps in another body, in another place, at another time. And he would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning. . .”
Del Toro’s film is dark. In fact, it’s beyond dark. He has created the bleakest of worlds into which he thrusts this innocent and intelligent little girl. Ofelia is the very embodiment of virtue. Vidal’s efforts at ridding his district of rebel activity, all the while unaware that his own housekeeper, Mercedes, is a rebel sympathizer, further illuminates the perilous atmosphere in which Ofelia must survive. Additionally, Vidal’s marriage to Ofelia’s mother, who is pregnant with this sadistic officer’s child, is more a matter of convenience than love. The mother, Carmen, exists for the captain solely as a means of producing his heir, and it is the film’s final denouement that exacts some minor revenge for the multitude of injustices carried out in the name of fascism.
Pan’s Labyrinth incorporates all the elements necessary to qualify it as an exercise in 21st Century Romanticism. The labyrinth itself is del Toro’s nightmare image of the travails experienced by the beautiful little girl at the center of his tale. The world is full of both beauty and horror, and del Torro inflicts both upon Ofelia before her death. That the film takes place during the final stages of World War II – during which Spain was officially neutral despite its pro-Nazi regime – evokes comparisons to the horrific developments taking place across Europe at that time. One critic noted the significance of the pile of shoes displayed before Ofelia as evocative of the Holocaust with its imagery including such piles of shoes taken from the victims of the worst act of genocide in modern history. [See Roger Ebert, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-pans-labyrinth-2006]
Romanticism, of course, was a reaction to the Enlightenment, with the latter’s emphasis on rationalism, science and realism as depicted in literature and the arts. As such, del Toro’s film is an apt – perhaps the most apt – 21st century representation of Romanticism yet produced.