The Two “Underground Realms” in Pan’s Labyrinth

PRObrett jordan FollowPan's Labyrinth (2048) © antonio 7

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which has its 10th anniversary this October, might be one of the most successful attempts to blend fantasy/dark fairy tale with political allegory.

*WARNING*: Some plot spoilers ahead.

“In the Underground Realm, where there are no lies and no pain, there lived a princess who dreamt of the human world.”

So begins Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), which uses fairy legend to frame a narrative about Spanish rebels attempting to resist Francisco Franco’s fascist regime in the 1940s. Before the main thread of the story begins, the voice-over narrator describes how a princess escapes the magical “Underground Realm” only to lose her memory when she emerges in the upper world. Shortly thereafter, she weakens and dies.

Just as the fantasy sequence ends, the camera pans up from the underworld, and when it emerges, we are suddenly amongst the ruins of a bell tower in modern Spain. As Paul Julian Smith notes, this is probably Belchite, the setting for an important battle during the Spanish Civil War (4), which instigated the conflict we see in the film. After the initial voice-over, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose story runs parallel with that of the princess from the Underground Realm.

To add even further complexity and richness, del Toro shoots the film in such a way that we are asked to contemplate the similarities between two “underground” communities.

Early in the film we learn that Ofelia’s pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), has married Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who is leading the campaign against the resistance. These rebels have survived because they know the terrain better than Franco’s men. It also helps that they have spies living and working in the same miltary outpost where Ofelia is now forced to live.

What links the underground resistance and the underground world of magic is, of course, the natural environment—a mysterious, verdant, and unpredictable landscape where one is just as likely to see a fairy or faun as a well-disguised guerrilla fighter. Both groups are equally elusive. Though we’re asked to stretch our imaginations and accept the possibility of a magical world existing parallel to our own, we’re also asked to contemplate a rebel victory; both scenarios seem unlikely.

The link between the fairy and real worlds is strengthened as the film progresses, particularly in sequences where both Ofelia and the rebels undertake clandestine operations. For example, during a split scene, Ofelia walks through one part of the woods reading her fairy tale book while Vidal leads his men through another part to search for a possible rebel hideout. The voice-over meanwhile describes a forest that was “home to creatures who were full of magic and wonder” and who protected and looked after one another. This invites us to see a commonality between the two sets of underground communities.

Ofelia’s tasks resemble the sort encountered in European folk legend, and, at least through the young girl’s perspective, seem to affect the outcome of events happening around her. For example, when she places a magical mandrake root under her mother’s bed, her mother seems to recover from her pregnancy-related illness.

Other tasks, like retrieving the golden key from the venomous frog that inhabits the fig tree, parallel the rebels’ tactics of stealing food and medical supplies from Vidal’s outpost. Indeed, before she defeats him, Ofelia chastises the nasty old frog for “growing fat while the tree dies”—clearly an allusion to those growing fat off the livelihood of the Spanish people. (A book like The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution, by Burnett Bolloten, gives a vivid sense of the desperate economic circumstances in this period.)

How appropriate that, as she emerges from the woods after her contest with the frog, covered from head to toe in mud, Ofelia meets the scullery maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who, we discover, is a spy for the resistance and has just been using her lantern to signal a warning to her rebel friends hiding in the hills.

In a later sequence, Ofelia crawls through a secret passage in her bedroom and enters the lair of a gruesome eyeless ghoul who eats children; significantly, this foul abode is located in the basement of the home, where, we learn, Vidal spends much of his time. Unlike the duel with the frog, however, Ofelia does not escape the ghoul without consequences.

Moreover, del Toro’s “underground” is not simply a realm of escapism but, as the film reveals, a prototype for a world in which resistance is possible but perpetually threatened by brutality. It is quite natural that Ofelia would gradually come to support the larger political resistance given that she experiences authoritarian rule firsthand in the person of Vidal, a cruel wicked step-father. (He cares only about acquiring a male heir, so Ofelia’s sick mother is only tolerated insofar as she is useful; Ofelia, on the other hand, is seen as a nuisance.)

The dictatorial organization of daily life and Vidal’s ruthless treatment of suspected “Red” sympathizers indicate that the upper-world is dominated by its own greedy and ghoulish creatures. The military hoards all the food in one place (the outpost is located at a mill) and then distributes food in bread lines; one of Vidal’s men announces smugly, “This is our daily bread in Franco’s Spain, kept safe in this mill!”

Vidal himself commits sickening acts of violence, like bashing in a young farmer’s face with a wine bottle or torturing rebels with hammers and tweezers. Spies, when they are finally discovered, are treated as you would expect.

Given the apparent futility of their struggle against Franco’s regime, we might well agree with philosopher Hannah Arendt that “Unicorns and fairy queens seem to possess more reality than the lost treasure of the revolutions” (5). But the important point here is that, as Jack Zipes notes in his review of the film, Ofelia has the ability to “see two worlds at the same time” (237)—not the “real” and the “unreal” but rather the actual and the possible.

The film’s bitter-sweet denouement demonstrates the ways in which folk narrative can be used (by directors and writers, by people involved in a political struggle) to alter the perception of a world. If Mercedes tells Ofelia that she no longer believes in “fairies,” Ofelia’s ardent belief in the Underground Realm is powerful enough to give the otherwise bleak world a hint of hope and beauty.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. New York: The Viking Press, 1961.

Bolloten, Burnett. The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Smith, Paul Julian. “Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno).” Film Quarterly 60 (Summer 2007): 4-9.

Zipes, Jack David. “Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno).” Journal of American Folklore 121 (Spring 2008): 236-240.

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