Blog Post 13: “Once Upon a Time in Spain”: Pan’s Labyrinth

This week, we watched Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which I’ve seen several times before, and had gotten something different out of it each time I’d seen it.  However, this time, we looked at it in the context of both fairy tales and history, and I’ve gained a fuller appreciation for the film as a result.

Dr. Thomas Deveny, who I had for Great Works of the Western World 1 back in freshman year, was our guest speaker of the week.  His lecture was called, “Once Upon a Time in Spain in 1944: The Morphology of El labertino del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth).” 

We went through Propp’s functions to facilitate our analysis, but first, we discussed the historical context of the film.  “Pan’s Labyrinth” takes place after the Spanish Civil War, which explains the guerilla fighters in the woods in the film.  The film blends history and fantasy, using the technique of montage.  This helped me understand the film much better, because previously I had no idea why there was such military rule and people were fighting it. 

Ofelia’s mother married Captain Vidal and has been relocated to the countryside, where this guerilla warfare is occurring, because Vidal wants his son to be born with him.  This makes the mother, Carmen, very ill.  Ofelia reads fairy tales and brings several books with her, and I think she uses them to cope with her abrupt relocation and the replacement of her dead father with the horrid Vidal, which goes along with what we’ve read of Bettelheim in class, because fairy tales have such psychological functions.

While other fairy tales we’ve read this semester do involve historical context, Pan’s Labyrinth is different because the fairy tale elements occur simultaneously within and separately from the historical reality plot. The tale is a bildungsroman, a coming of age tale.  In this one, Ofelia breaks away from her family, passing from innocence to knowledge through her fantasy world exploration. 

The reality and fantasy interact, as we discussed while going over Propp’s functions. For example, the second function is “An interdiction is addressed to the hero.”  Ofelia/Moanna is told not to eat anything in the realm of the pale-man, but because food is so scarce in her real world, she can’t help but to eat grapes.  Food is being rationed by Vidal so that supplies don’t get to the guerillas; obviously, the people of Spain are hungry, because a man shouts about the daily bread and that nobody will go hungry.  So, when Ofelia-as-Moanna eats a grape, she violates the interdiction because of her mundane needs, and two fairies die as a result. 

The magic number three is evident in both the mundane and fantasy worlds as well. There are three instruments of torture, 3 tasks Ofelia-as-Moanna must complete, three stones that the huge toad must eat, and three numbers the stutterer must count to. 

The “Left” is significant as well.  As we’ve learned previously, the left side is the feminine side, e.g. Cinderella’s left shoe going missing. At the beginning of the film, Ofelia goes to shake Capt. Vidal’s hand, and she uses her left, which he doesn’t hesitate to criticize. Later, in the pale-man scene, the fairies tell her to open the middle box, but she defies them and chooses the left. 

This relates to one of the film’s most important themes- independent, critical, and moral thought. She makes her own decision, and it’s one of her coming-of-age moments. Other characters demonstrate this theme as well- notably, the doctor. He kills the tortured stutterer against orders, and tells Vidal that he isn’t like him, that he can’t just obey. So he walks away and gets shot in the back. He dies, but he’s noble. 

I rather enjoyed Thursday’s class, and it’s strange to think that there’s only one more week of classes left!

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