Guilt Over Fascism Fuels the Spanish Allegory in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’

I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” the other night. It’s a great movie, period. That said, my friends and I differed on the thrust of the allegory, whether it is political or psychological.

The movie is set, very realistically, in a fascist outpost in the mountains in 1944. Franco’s troops are trying to root out the guerillas. The heroine of the movie is Ofelia, a girl of 9 or 10 whose widowed mother has, horrifyingly, remarried a fascist captain. The girl’s understanding of the situation as a fairy tale pitting good and evil gradually overtakes the realistic face of the film, and as one after another character is killed, the drama surrounds the question of the girl’s survival.

One friend saw it in strictly Jungian terms as a happy story: the girl heroine of the movie enacts what Joseph Campbell used to call “the hero’s journey.” A faun appears and gives Ofelia several supernatural tests. She tries hard, she fails, she succeeds, fails and succeeds. One of the tests is straight from the myth of Psyche; by eating forbidden fruit, she is nearly condemned to the underworld. But in the end, her character is fulfilled, in a mythic destiny.

I saw the film as an allegory of political liberation. The girl’s foolish mother is all of Spain. She has misjudged the macho leader, condemning herself and the country to tremendous agonies. No one in the film can escape this, they are all to suffer for their guilt or their opposition to the Fascists. The little girl is trying to escape these outcomes, and she does, by imagining a different destiny. For me the deep power of the movie came out of the trauma of Spanish history: the filmmaker and all of Spain are wrestling with what they did, how they were compromised and bullied, and so deserved the holocaust of blood that resulted. It reminded me of a piece by Kurosawa or Gunter Grass—other efforts to acknowledge a society’s susceptibility to evil, and then to try and redeem that society through art.