Roses sure have come to symbolize a lot in modern western culture. But the symbolism associated with roses tends to focus on their beauty: roses mean love, or friendship, or youth. People seem content to focus on their pretty petals…and total disregard those nasty thorns.
Ha. Not Ofelia's rose:
OFELIA: A long, long time ago in a grey sad country there was a magic rose that made whoever plucked it immortal. But no one would dare go near it because its thorns were full of mortal poison. So amongst the men tales of pain and death were told in hushed voices. But there was no talk of eternal life for men fear pain more than they want immortality. So every day the rose wilted, unable to bequeath its gift to anyone. Alone and forgotten at the top of that mountain…forgotten until the end of time.
This rose might offer eternal life, but it's thorny and poisonous mountain promises enough pain that men (who seem to always be seeking immortality: from the Fountain of Youth to cryogenic freezing to Botox) won't even go near it.
So what does this mean?
The rose, which is often a feminine symbol, could represent Ofelia's potential journey to adulthood. But Ofelia's journey into adolescence is fraught with pain and fear—she doesn't want to attain a womanhood like shared by Mercedes and Carmen. The rose's thorns are doing symbolic double-duty: they both represent the scary physical changes like puberty (specifically menstruation), and men, who pollute the world of women with war and misogyny
But Ofelia never makes this journey. She never gets the chance. And while she's alive she spends her time running in the opposite direction of adulthood—back into the innocence with which she was born, an innocence alluded to by the narrator's description of the pain- and lie-free Underground Realm.
There are a lot of hidden similarities between what's happening in Ofelia's fantasy world and what we see going on in the human world: some big, some small, and some more apparent than others. (Sorry: there were no actual Fauns in the Spanish Civil War.)
But each serves to connect the human story of war to Ofelia's journey through the fantasy world.
So let's start with an easy one to spot: the walk through the woods. Ofelia's reading the Book of Crossroads and making her way to the giant fig tree. She is looking very pretty in her new silk dress and the lighting around her is warm with the sun and the music that plays is soft and gentle. She narrates from the book as she walks and there is a sense that she has, like Alice already entered into a wonderland.
Compare this to the soldiers, galloping on their warhorses through the undergrowth. Although they travel through the same forest as Ofelia, the scene is much more intense. We have the rapid, staccato beating of hooves and the music is much more violent.
This, combined with the horizontal wipes of the trees that transition seamlessly between these two woodland adventures, highlights the very different worlds in which the men and Ofelia live: a world of war vs. a world of innocence.
There are also some smaller parallels, like the importance of a key in each world. Pedro and Ofelia each receive a key that opens a locked door.
But in each case, that key betrays them. Ofelia's leads to the blade that the Faun will try and use against her brother, and the storeroom key will not only get many of the rebels killed but will also divulge Mercedes true allegiance.
Last—but certainly not least—there's a strong parallel between Vidal and the Pale Man. In the dinner scene, when Vidal invites all of his important guests over, he sits at the head of a sumptuously laid table. Vidal is obviously in control of the conversation. He shuts up Carmen when she reveals information he'd rather not be known and talks to the company about choice and the war.
When we first see the Pale Man, he's also seated at the head of a long table that displays a lavish feast. And just like Vidal, he is in control of his domain, not just visually, but in the manner of his actions upon waking. If Ofelia has created this fantasy world in her imagination, as some would argue, than perhaps her fear of Vidal has created this child-devouring monster.
Sometimes a giant toad is just a giant toad…and sometimes it's a metaphor for socio-economic inequality.
You may have noticed that the scene right after Ofelia's battle with the giant toad—you know, the toad that grown monstrously large from feeding on nasty grubs—is the dinner scene, featuring Vidal, the priest, and other important people. These bigwigs are gobbling away at all their fancy food, while the rest of the families are being rationed do to the war (or post-war) conditions.
In the same way that the toad is syphoning the life of the fig tree, the Spanish upper class is killing the lower class by hoarding Spain's limited resources.
But sometimes a giant toad is just a giant toad…and sometimes it's a metaphor for pregnancy. (Yikes.)
The toad could also be representative of Ofelia's baby brother. Go back and check out the shape of that tree again. It looks a lot like the uterus and fallopian tubes. And the tree—like Ofelia's mother—is slowly being killed by the being that lives inside it.
And in case that wasn't morbid enough for you: think of the toad's death. As it dies, it regurgitates a large sack. This imagery is reminiscent of afterbirth, when the placenta (also a large sack) comes out of the birth canal.
We know; it's super-visceral. But hey: welcome to the wild world of Guillermo del Toro films.
If you look closely at the set of Vidal's room, you'll notice a lot of large gears and beams in the background. Sure, maybe there's some logical explanation for why these would be in his room; maybe the machinery décor was the "in" thing back in 1940s Spain.
But what stands out are how these gears mirror the gears in Vidal's father's watch—you know, the watch that we see him fixing in the first scene of him in his room.
We know the gears in the watch are useless. The watch was smashed on a rock and broken, only able to tell the time of Vidal senior's death. But both sets of gears have a more symbolic significance.
They're a visual representation of Vidal's character. They speak of his need for rule and order and control. Vidal is a man of action, a military captain, who very literally forces his will upon the world just like the gears do in their cold, mechanical, unthinking way.
But, like the broken gears of the watch, Vidal's will is ultimately thwarted, and any meaning or memory he was trying to perpetuate was lost along with his life.
Just like Alice, who crawls down a rabbit hole into a very strange world of fantasy, Ofelia also crawls through the hole in the fig tree and into her fantasy world.
The dress is, which is also depicted on the drawings of Ofelia in the Book of Crossroads, is more of an one off allusion than of any real symbolic significance. But just because Alice's and Ofelia's adventures are very different, they're still both stories of a young female protagonist looking for some respite from the human world.
And, although Alice's story might have a bit more levity, they both run into some disturbing things when they enter their respective wonderlands.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Ordinary life for Ofelia isn't so hot. In fact, it's pretty frigid. Having just moved to Vidal's estate with her mother, Ofelia is feeling frightened by all the change, the scary nighttime sounds, and especially her intimidating stepfather.
Besides, in the ordinary world she's supposed to just stay out of the way and wear pretty dresses. It doesn't sound like much fun.
Ofelia's call to adventure comes in the form of a fairy, which in turn comes in the form of a bug. Seeing the magical being transform from hideous to cute in front of her, she can't help but follow it as it leads her outside of the house and into the night.
Ofelia never really refuses the call. In fact, quite the opposite is true: she's drawn toward it.
Actually, it may be the case that the call to adventure is of her own devising; she wants to escape the ordinary world and, despite the dangers of the creepy labyrinth, she never turns back.
Well, to say the Faun is a mentor is stretching things a bit. Specifically, it's stretching the idea that the mentor is always an 100% pleasant figure.
At times he seems sweet and nurturing and at other times we're just positive he's out to get her. Either way, it's the Faun who gives her the book and helps guide her through the tasks that lead her back to her true home—even if he is a bit hard on her at times.
Ofelia crosses the threshold when she accepts the book from the Faun and begins her first task. This is when she officially leaves the mortal realm and enters the world of the fantastical, though it may not be everything she expected.
Ofelia's tests are super straightforward, in typical fairytale fashion. In typical fairytale fashion, they're basically described as, well, tests.
She has to feed three magic stones to the toad, take the dagger from the room with the Pale Man, and bring her brother to the Labyrinth so innocent blood can be spilled. Of course, after the toad things get a bit complicated, but we'll get there in a moment.
This stage also takes place in part in the real world, as Ofelia learns she can trust Mercedes and the Doctor. She learns their secret but doesn't say anything.
The Pale Man trial is Ofelia's approach to the cave. It would have been easy if it weren't for those delicious looking grapes and the fact that Ofelia was too hangry to resist them.
But when the Faun finds out that she touched the food and two of his fairies were eaten, he ends her tests and tells her she has just lost her chance of becoming the princess she was and rejoining her immortal family.
Ofelia's ordeal is her mother's death. And it doesn't get much worse than that for an eleven-year-old kid.
After the destruction of the mandrake, which her mother throws into the fire, she has a difficult pregnancy and passes away. Now Ofelia just has her infant brother and terrifying stepfather at the estate. This ordeal doesn't strengthen her, it just pushes her down further in defeat: a real world tragedy to match her fairy world failure.
Ofelia's reward—not for failing with the mandrake root or the Pale Man, but for trusting Mercedes—is a chance to flee the estate for good and go live with the rebels. One night, Mercedes grabs her and the two begin to sneak out of the compound in the rain.
This road back is not a pleasant one. Ofelia and Mercedes are discovered by Vidal who brings them back inside the compound. But in her room, Ofelia gets a final chance at redemption: she just needs to bring her brother to the Faun in the labyrinth, evading her drugged, wounded stepfather along the way.
Ofelia appears with her brother in the labyrinth, but when she learns what the Faun wants to do with him (hint: it involves a knife and rhymes with "crab"), she refuses to let his blood be spilled. This is actually the test, and Ofelia passes.
Unfortunately, Vidal catches up to her and, after taking his son, shoots her and kills her.
Ofelia's elixir is twofold. As Vidal exits the labyrinth he's surrounded by the rebels who take his son, making Ofelia's brother safe from his evil father. Ofelia herself is transported into the fairy realm, even as her real-world body bleeds out on the ground of the labyrinth.
History lesson time: the Spanish Civil War was a conflict that lasted from 1936-1939. (Yeah: the 1930s were a rough time pretty much globally.)
This conflict saw a battle—or, more accurately, a bunch of battles—between the left-leaning Republicans and the right-leaning Nationalists. But because this took place in 1930s Europe, it was massively globally significant: the Republicans were getting aid from the Soviet Union and the Nationalists were getting aid from the Nazis.
And the Nationalists officially won on April 1, 1939…exactly six months before WWII started.
Pan's Labyrinth takes place five years later. WWII has been raging for a long time, but the tide of war had turned and the end was in sight. In fact, part of the reason the (Republican) rebels are still fighting a war they had lost was that they were hoping for Allied reinforcements.
The Allies were winning the war at this point and, seeing as they were taking out fascist regimes, the Spanish rebels were hoping they would come for the Spanish Falangists.
Unfortunately, that never happened. But hey, at least they were victorious in the movie, right? Right?
In a film that cuts back and forth between different worlds, the types of transition are obviously going to be key.
Let's start with the first notable transition we get hit with right from the start. Our first image is of a dying Ofelia, lying on the ground. As we move closer to her face and see the blood is actually returning to her, we end up zooming all the way in through her eye and into the Underground Realm.
We're essentially entering Ofelia's body: we're going into her world—a world of fantasy and war—to experience her story. We can see the Faun because Ofelia can see the Faun as we travel through her eye and gain her perspective.
Then there's a more subtle transition between Ofelia's story of the rose (which ends with her talking about its promise of eternal life), and the following scene in which we see Vidal winding his father's watch that doesn't work. Just like the immortality offered by the rose, Vidal's father has created a way to immortalize himself through his legacy of the watch and through his son's obsession with it.
There're plenty of other interesting transitions, like the one from Ofelia carrying her key to the Faun to the shot of Vidal using the storeroom key to give out rations. Or the cut from the beginning of Ferreiro's amputation to the shot of Ofelia pulling out the Book of Crossroads.
Then there are the series of vertical and horizontal wipes used to transition between the fantasy and human world. We can see this in an upward wipe as we move from Ofelia in the bathtub to Ofelia in the labyrinth.
We also see it in the parallel scenes of Ofelia and the soldiers traveling through the woods, where a tree is used to wipe between the two scenes. These wipes create a sense of closeness, a proximity between both worlds that suggests they're intertwined with one another.
Just to clear the air here: Fauns aren't real. Neither are fairies, or giant toads, or pale men with hands for eyes that eat children (phew, we were a little worried about that one).
That's right; in Pan's Labyrinth we've entered the realm of the unreal…which can only mean we're in a fantasy. No, there aren't any high elves or dark elves or rings of power, but the creatures in the film are fantastical beings. They're creatures that fit within the context of Ofelia's world but that appear as mere stories or childish imagination to adults like Mercedes and Carmen.
And that's the key, a fantasy may have hyperreal creatures or abilities that defy the laws of nature, but they're always human stories, written for humans about the human experience. The creatures in this fantasy are all representative of Ofelia and her life in the human world.
But Pan's Labyrinth is more than just your normal fantasy adventure-type story. It's also a fable.
Fables are an age-old genre, generally told to children, which are used to teach some kind of moral or lesson at the end. Pan's Labyrinth has a sense of black and white morality: the purely good Ferreiro and Mercedes against the evil Vidal.
If we zoom out from Ofelia's story, we'll see that the bigger picture is the battle between the Falangist supporters of Spain's new government and the rebels continuing to fight against them.
It might be easy to dismiss this, saying that del Toro just needed a dramatic environment to force Ofelia to escape into her fantasy realm, but there are just too many parallels to ignore the importance of what is happening in the violent world of the adults.
Pan's Labyrinth is a story of war told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl who battles the evils of her fantasy world…even as the rebels fight similar battles in the historical world of 1944 Spain.
Okay, let's get one thing straight here; the Faun is not Pan. (Check out the Faun's Character Analysis for more info.)
In the original Spanish title this is clear—it's called El Laberinto del Fauno (The Labyrinth of the Faun). But because of English and marketing, things got a little confusing…so let's break it down.
Pan is the Greek god of nature, the wilds, and shepherds. He is often depicted with goat hind legs in the manner of a faun (which is where things can get a little twisted) and is associated with music and with sexuality.
In fact, Pan's explicit association with sex is what drove del Toro away from including him in the movie. He felt Pan would be too dark and sexual for a movie featuring an eleven-year-old girl as its protagonist.
The Faun, on the other hand, is a half-man, half-goat creature from Roman mythology with ties to the Greek mythology Satyr. Fauns are very similar to Pan in that they're associated with nature and music and seen as an antithesis of civilization.
Unlike Pan, fauns are less sexual beings. They're more whimsical, often appearing and helping are scaring lonely travelers in the woods.
The point is that anyone who calls the Faun in Pan's Labyrinth "Pan" is technically wrong—although it's hard to blame them. Oh, and also there's a labyrinth. We almost forgot.
Remember Ofelia, lying on the ground, blood flowing back into her nostrils as she stares blankly toward the camera? Well, it turns out our beginning was actually our ending; Ofelia's death and its reversal is the narrative of the movie.
We witness her birth in the story of Princess Moanna and her journey back to her origin is a process of her mortal death. It's all a bit morbid if you really think about it…but the ending itself is happy.
Some people like to complicate things by wondering if any of this fantasy world stuff is real. Well, since all we have is what's on the screen, the fantasy world has to be real. Ofelia really is a princess of the Underground Realm who, through sacrificing her own life for the blood of her brother, gets to live in the place of no pain or lies with her parents.
Just know that, while Ofelia's death may seem tragic to Mercedes and the rebels, it's just the final stage of her journey, a necessary task that she had to complete to return home to her mother and father.
Although, if her mother's the moon…who's that lady sitting next to her pops?
Just because there aren't any sex scenes or drug uses doesn't mean this is a fairy tale for children.
There's a lot of violence in Pan's Labyrinth, and we're not just talking about bloodless bullet holes. We see a man's face smashed in with a bottle, the beginnings of an amputation and the resolution of torture. We see a bloody and deadly labor and the violent deaths of other main characters. And let's not forget the stabbing scene and the part where Vidal stiches back together his sliced-open mouth.
All this and we haven't even touched on the general aura of creepiness of the creatures like the Faun and the Pale Man that are sure to induce nightmares in even the least imaginative of us. Our protagonist might be young and innocent…but that only serves to amplify the violence and the horror around her.