Pan’s Labyrinth – Truth or Fantasy?

Set in 1944, post-Spanish Civil War, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth follows the story of a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose pregnant mother has forced her to move to a small military-run mill, commanded by her fascist new stepfather Vidal (Sergi López). Upon entering an old labyrinth Ofelia is approached by a Faun, a mystical creature who tells her that she’s the princess of a lost kingdom, and to return there she must complete three tasks. And so a web of truth and fantasy is spun, with the lines between fact and fiction, and good or evil blurred, coming to a head in an enigmatic ending where we’re left to question whether Ofelia’s world is real or not. But there are hints to be found if you look closely enough. 

Shot by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, his fourth collaboration with writer/director Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth earned him a multitude of awards including an Oscar for ‘Best Achievement in Cinematography’ in 2007.  The film is in essence about Ofelia’s search to find her place in the world, and through the cinematography “the audience is learning with her and discovering things with her”. Navarro’s camera work reflects the theme of searching with its constant movement and unrest. It settles only on rare occasions throughout, before continuing on its unrelenting pursuit for answers. Through his use of framing, lighting and colour Navarro creates two worlds that, although dissimilar in several ways are identical in others, and this becomes key to the narrative which is played out through the visual palette.

“Where there is no light, one cannot see; and when one cannot see, his imagination starts to run wild. He begins to suspect that something is about to happen. In the dark there is mystery.” – John Alton.

Navarro uses a dense shadow, creating the sense that there’s always something lurking just out of sight throughout Pan’s Labyrinth. The deep shadows reflect the feeling of unknowing. Unknowing for us as the viewer, and for Ofelia, our entry point to the film’s world. The ever-mysterious Faun from Ofelia’s lost kingdom is seen stepping out of the shadows to greet her, his motivations brought into question as he slinks ambiguously into and out of the darkness. He is Ofelia’s only constant link to the ‘fantasy’ world, and he’s a link filled with unease and intrigue.

The Faun and Ofelia.
The Faun and Ofelia.

Colour is key. The events unfold through three main areas. The ‘real’ world, the intermediate ‘pit’ and the ‘fantasy’ world. Each area has its own colour scheme, based around the colours red, green and blue, and the pre-conceptions that go with these colours. The ‘real’ world mainly features blues, conveying the cold and harshness of that particular space. The ‘pit’ where Ofelia first meets the Faun is soaked in deep greens, reflecting an earthiness in the place, echoed in the design of the Faun himself. Finally, the ‘fantasy’ world features heavy reds and oranges, signifying warmth, homeliness and also death. Colour is used to first separate the different worlds, then secondly to bring them together.

As the story progresses the two worlds begin to seep into each other, and this is reflected through the colours. The oranges and reds begin to break into the ‘real’ world; beginning with a torture sequence in a food shed, and culminating in the film’s climax where the two worlds collide to tragic effect. The camera swoops seamlessly from the cold blue into the warm orange, binding them together.

Worlds collide.
Worlds collide.

The warmer tones of the ‘fantasy’ world are introduced for the first time through a story Ofelia tells to her unborn brother, linking new life to these colours. In the opening shot of the film, Ofelia lies dying on the floor, with red blood on her hand and face standing out sharply from the cold blue lighting. Whilst an initial reading of this is that she’s facing death, the theme of birth is intrinsically linked to the colour red, so when the two worlds literally start bleeding into each other, it’s no longer read as being Ofelia’s death, but rather Ofelia’s birth into the new world. A world which I would argue does, in fact, exist within the story.

We view the film from the outset through Ofelia’s point of view, meaning there’s very little we know that she doesn’t. The very first shot is of the camera tilting and tracking forwards to her and through into the ‘fantasy’ world, telling us immediately that we are going on the journey through her eyes. Ofelia, and by extension us as the audience, are the only people that can see the magic of the labyrinth.

Late in the film, Vidal finds Ofelia supposedly talking to herself, whilst we know her to be conversing with the Faun. It’s framed through Vidal’s point of view, seemingly proving that there is no ‘fantasy’ world. Yet we know that only Ofelia can see the hidden truth. Just because Vidal can’t see the Faun, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. His world is the darker, colder place. The Faun doesn’t belong to his world, and he doesn’t belong to the Faun’s.

Navarro put it this way:

“The camera is looking and revealing things to you and teaching you, rather than simply presenting things to you”.

He’s essentially created a sense that there’s always more to see than it may originally seem.

In an early scene, Vidal has guests round for dinner, we see him sat at the head of the table, framed centrally. Later, the exact same shot is repeated, though this time with the hellish creature, the Pale Man, in place of Vidal. There are also close-ups of a key and a knife in the ‘real’ world which are mirrored by shots of a key and a knife in the ‘fantasy’ world. The reused framing may suggest that Ofelia is taking what she sees in the ‘real’ world and changing to suit her ‘fantasy’ as a way of escapism. However, Ofelia doesn’t know about the key and the knife in the ‘real’ world. If she doesn’t know about them in ‘reality’, then how is it possible for them to reappear in her ‘fantasy’?

Mirror Images.
Mirror Images.

The visual devices that Navarro and Del Toro use in Pan’s Labyrinth all unify to create a sense of questioning, reflected by the inquisitive nature of the lead protagonist Ofelia. The film manipulates the audience into thinking one thing before forcing them to reconsider what they originally thought – this being most prevalent when looking at whether or not Ofelia’s kingdom is ‘real’. The answer to that question lies within the subtext. Del Toro and Navarro purposefully created ambiguity so that the audience has to actively look for the answer. Not only is Ofelia searching, but we are also searching ourselves to find the truth. We are navigating our own labyrinth. Perhaps Ofelia’s fantastical realm is real. Perhaps it’s not. Maybe it just comes down to what you want to believe.

“If you view it and you don’t believe, you’ll view the movie as, “Oh, it was all in her head.” If you view it as a believer, you’ll see clearly where I stand, which is it is real. My last image in the movie is an objective little white flower blooming in a dead tree with the bug watching it. So…” – Guillermo del Toro.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Berto says:

    Great post! love the colors in this film and how meaningful they are. Del Toro is great at this even in Hellboy, Pacific Rim and Devil’s Backbone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Luke Kent says:

      Thanks! He does make beautiful films, particularly like the use of colour in Hellboy II and Crimson Peak 👍

      Liked by 1 person

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