A Cheat Sheet for Decoding “Pan’s Labyrinth”

pan's labyrinth


A relatively early addition to 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, writer/director Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 fantasy draws from Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Spirited Away to create an allegory of wartime horrors. But how do you unlock all the meanings in this richly conceived adult fairytale? Here’s a key to four recurrent symbols.

Ocular Imagery: The camera plunging into Ofelia’s eye, the empty socket of the statue, the gouging of a farmer’s eye, the Faun’s clouded eyes, the Pale Man’s disembodied eyes, the anti-Franco doctor shot in the eye, the Captain’s bloodied eye…
One Interpretation: Only a child can see how truly messed up this world is as children can see both the concrete (reality) and the mystical (fantasy).

Time-Based Imagery: A smashed broken watch of the Captain’s military father, the clock-like interior of the mill, Vidal’s obsessions with time, the sand hourglass, the full moon deadline…
One Interpretation: Much of the time-based imagery represents the ideals of control/protocol/conformity by which the Captain lives. He clutches time and associated rituals while Ofelia clutches to stories and imagination (that are not inherently governed by conventional time).

Fertility Imagery: The unborn fetus in the mother’s belly, the pollen floating in the fig tree, Ofelia’s rebirth from the muddy womb of the fig tree, circular and fallopian-tube shaped items, the fig tree’s rebirth after the death of the toad, the moon birthmark on Ofelia’s back, the carving at the labyrinth’s entrance, the carving in the mother’s headboard, the shape of the throne-room…
One Interpretation: Reflecting the fragility and mystical aspects of pregnancy, the fertility imagery echoes the sexual connection between Vidal and Ofelia’s mother—especially in how it plays out his obsession with a male heir and her death from pregnancy complications.

Martyr Imagery: The Pale Man’s pile of shoes—a Holocaust reference that also suggests he eats children, the rabbit-hunters, the consequence of Ofelia’s eating of the grapes, the attainment of the magic rose atop a mountain surrounded by poisonous thorns, the torture of the stuttering rebel, the spilling of the blood of an innocent…
One Interpretation: Innocence can triumph over evil, yes, but sometimes innocence must be sacrificed to protect freedom.

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