“The Passion of Ofelia”

Pan’s Labyrinth suffers from the spoiled expectations of being marketed as something it isn’t. Genre film lovers are kind of programmed so that when we see the word “Labyrinth,” we can’t help but conjure up images of the fantasy classic. However, the latest opus from director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) feels like a follow up to his Devil’s Backbone. This lush, imaginative production had the feel of a very personal movie, like a much darker The Lady in the Water (which also knows a thing or two about being marketed as something it isn’t).

Drawing on the primal urgency of the original fairy tales before they were cleaned up for mass consumption, Pan’s Labyrinth is magical realism – fantasy firmly rooted in reality. A little girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) under the fascist regime of 1944 Spain, accompanies her pregnant mother, Carmen Vidal (Ariadna Gil) to meet the man who she is to now call father, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Except that “father” is “more than just a word” to her. We are plunged into her imagination, and the harshness of her situation, as she embarks on a journey to a magical world within her own. A world of fantasy and wonder, to escape from as well as deal with, her reality.

“How do you know what you say is true?” –Ofelia

Her kingdom awaits the return of a dead princess whose true father waits for her. Pan’s Labyrinth layers stories within fairy tales within stories, as it interprets an ancient story within the context of a fairy tale. Fantastic creatures, from Pan to the Pale Man, wander through the film like imaginings from Clive Barker’s Abarat world.

Here, the message is the magic. A visual feast of stunning images alongside graphic ones (such as the Captain suddenly turning and beating a young man to death), Pan’s Labyrinth is both gruesome and spell-binding. In a lot of ways, faith and spiritual concerns are essentially magic. We believe a lot of things when we are children. We have the ability to wonder, to look at the world around us with awe, full of its own brand of magic. It’s a shame that we lose the ability to dream as we get older.

The power of story is being able to portray magic in the ordinary.

“She forgot who she was and where she came from.” –Narrator

A common fantasy trope is that of the changeling: the idea that a child was born of parents different from the ones that raised him. That they are, in fact, someone special, children like Harry Potter. The land where Ofelia was from anxiously awaits the return of their princess.

Modeling Christ’s journey of self-discover of his messianic consciousness, she dwelled fully human among her adopted parents as she discovered who she was. Ofelia had to find her way herself, though she possessed The Book of Crossroads, basically, her scriptures, that informed her mission and journey.

In being taught how to follow instructions, realizing that there were consequences to be paid if she didn’t, she learned what it meant to obey as she grew in surrender to the will of her father, all for the sake of knowing her true father. Her journey parallels Christ journey as he had to discover what it meant for him to “be about my Father’s business.”

“The essence of [God's] forgiveness lies in His word and in His mystery. Because although God sends us the message, it is our task to decipher it. Because when we open our arms, the earth takes in only a hollow and senseless shell. Far away now is the soul in its eternal glory. Because it is in pain that we find the meaning of life and the state of grace that we lose when we are born. Because God in His infinite wisdom puts the solution in our hands. And because it is only in His physical presence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.” –Priest

This is a cruel world– the cruelty of man embodied by her earthly father–full of both tragedy and magic. We’ve “talked about pain. But never about the promise of eternal life.” We cling to the hope of eternal life, a life beyond the pain of this existence; a greater glory and kingdom. Yet it shouldn’t be a “pie in the sky, when we die” brand of belief, but rather one realizing that this kingdom life begins now. We leave behind small traces of our lives–in the little things, in the moments–if you know where to look. The trek may be dangerous, full of poison thorns, but it is worth it, to get that rose of eternal life.

The theme of sacrifice winds it’s way throughout the movie. Ofelia sacrifices her throne for the sake of another. She sheds her blood for the sake of another. But these weren’t the final steps in her journey of faith.

“To obey – just like that – for obedience’s sake … without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.” –Doctor Ferreiro (Álex Angulo)

The ultimate test of her faith was to learn when to question. Ofelia questions the rules presented to her in order to find true faith and her true father. We often confuse doubt with a lack of faith, questioning as the first step of falling way, when in reality, doubting proves thought. How we arrive at truth depends on our ability to think and reflect, to contemplate our own existence. I’m reminded of something Ann Lamott said in her book, Plan B Further Thoughts on Faith: “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and the discomfort and letting it be there until some light returns.”

Pan’s Labyrinth conjures up so many images from stories I grew up reading. The Minotaur. Persephone. Orpheus and Eurydice. Labyrinths were a feature of many medieval cathedrals and are used by many today as a spiritual discipline. Unlike a maze, it is a single path of concentric circles that leads to a center point, and then returns the same way. People walk the labyrinth slowly, as an aid to contemplative prayer and reflection, to calm their minds as a spiritual exercise. The path has three stages – the ‘inward’ journey (letting go of things which hinder our wholeness), the center (a space of meditative prayer) and the ‘outward’ journey (reaching out to others in light of our relationship to God). In other words, walking and praying it is a tangible picture of our spiritual journey.

Pan’s Labyrinth has a magical quality, like Spirited Away with CGI effects. It is myth for adults, with all of its attendant elements – woven with death and loss, courage and love and sacrifice. Its graceful and elegant cinematography paints a vivid canvass for such an unvarnished fairy tale. Indeed, it is a rare treat of a movie.

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