To me, the power of Pan’s Labyrinth derives from the fact that Ofelia’s world must be imaginary, that she uses her imagination to escape the horrors of reality (civil war and a bad stepfather), and this makes the ending all the more tragic: her stepfather kills her, and she can only imagine herself going on to a better place to reign as a princess. There are points in the film where it seems obvious that Ofelia is imagining things as a child would. Her stepfather can’t see the faun she’s talking to; her “fairie” friends are really grasshoppers; etc. Her adventures come across as an eleven-year old’s way of coping with misery and loneliness.
But on the whole the issue is kept ambiguous, so that viewers can interpret things how they wish. Take Ofelia’s mother. She has a rough time with her pregnancy until Ofelia hides a “magical” mandrake-root under her bed; her health then begins improving remarkably. When the root is later discovered (by the stepfather, who flies into a rage) and thrown into a fire, she goes into miscarriage and dies. The audience is left to ponder whether the miscarriage came about from stress (her daughter being threatened by Vidal) or because the mandrake was killed. This is filmmaking at its best, teasing viewers, allowing them to draw conclusions without forcing conclusions.
But ultimately it’s all for naught, because the story does shove a conclusion down our throats if we look carefully enough — that the fantasy is real. Del Toro says he planted three clues to remove the ambiguity. From the interview:
Michael Guillen: This is the dispute going on among people who have seen your film. Was Ofelia in her fantasy world? Was it a real world? I keep saying such questions pose a false dichotomy.
Guillermo Del Toro: Yes, of course. And it’s intimate. If the movie works as a piece of storytelling, as a piece of artistic creation, it should tell something different to everyone. It should be a matter of personal discussion. Now objectively, the way I structured it, there are three clues in the movie that tell you where I stand. I stand in that it’s real. The most important clues are the flower at the end, and the fact that there’s no way other than the chalk door to get from the attic to the Captain’s office.
Guillen: Yes, and again referring back to the dynamic of their dyad, Mercedes notices the chalk door; they aren’t just in Ofelia’s imagination.
Del Toro: Objectively, those two clues tell you it’s real. The third clue is she’s running away from her stepfather, she reaches a dead end, by the time he shows up she’s not there. Because the walls open for her. So sorry, there are clues that tell you where I stand and I stand by the fantasy. Those are objective things if you want. The film is a Rorschach test of where people stand.
But I think the “first” clue is obtuse. In the final shot of the film, we see a flower unfolding as the narrator tells us Ofelia “reigned with justice and a kind heart for many centuries… and left behind small traces of her time on earth visible only to those who know where to look” — whereupon a grasshopper pauses and stares at the flower. But grasshoppers (“fairies”) were part of her fantasy to begin with. I thought the narrator was simply the muse for Ofelia’s imagination. I don’t think the flower really counts as a clue. It could mean anything.
The “third” clue is a more valid one, though hard to spot. I assumed Ofelia found another way around the dead-end, just as her stepfather ended up doing. But if you watch carefully, it’s a rather long cul-de-sac, and she would have had to retrace her steps a considerable distance — going right back into the hands of her stepfather hot on her heels. So I suppose the hedge-walls must have magically parted for her to escape.
The “second” clue is the clearest one, and there’s no getting around it. Ofelia couldn’t have escaped the locked attic, but she did. So her chalk door really opened a magic portal. The fantasy — the labyrinth, the faun and fairies, her noble heritage — is all real.
Learning this diminished the story for me. If Del Toro wanted to tell a fairy tale for adults (his stated intention), and with a heavy political message, what’s the point of a child’s imagination being real? That fantasy can prevail against fascism? Sounds like a tale for kids after all.
Well, not really. Pan’s Labyrinth is definitely not for kids, given all its refreshingly honest darkness and brutality. And despite my complaint, I still love the film; by the standards of most fantasy, it’s a serious achievement. I just wish Del Toro had let us take his “Rorschach test”, as he puts it, without imposing his own interpretation of the inkblots on his viewers — a most unwanted interpretation, in my view, to say the least.