Redemption from a World of Pain and Suffering: Pan’s Labyrinth

Posted: February 12, 2013 by Emilio Garofalo Neto in Uncategorized

Guest post by Colby Painter*


WARNING: Spoilers ahead!


Any realistic assessment of life in this world will recognize the reality of suffering.  Our lives are filled with it.  Our bodies suffer cold, sickness, and pain.  Many of us come from dysfunctional or broken families.  People near to us die.  We often feel depressed, anxious, lonely, guilty.  Life is backwards, not as it should be.  Something has gone terribly wrong with the world.  Such a world is the world of the 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth.  Set during the summer of 1944 in Franco’s fascist Spain at a remote military outpost occupied by Franco’s fascist troops, the world of the film is characterized by faceless totalitarianism and brutal violence.  The incarnation of these characteristics is the ruthless and sadistic Captain Vidal, the commander of the outpost.  The Captain and his fascist troops are seeking to root out the band of rebels that are hiding in the woods and fighting with guerilla tactics.  This is a man who knows only unquestioning obedience, and who demands unquestioning obedience from others.  He is fastidious: we see him looking at his pocket watch, cleaning his pocket watch, polishing his boots, shaving, slicking back his hair, conscientiously putting on his hat.  His only concern—and his only real hope—is the son that his wife carries in her womb.  He wants to wipe out the rebels so that his son might be born in “a new, clean Spain.”

All of this shows us the film’s view of the human condition—i.e., its doctrine of man (or anthropology).  According to the film’s director (Guillermo del Toro), Captain Vidal stands not just for fascism but for any sort of authoritarian or totalitarian institution or belief system—especially the (Catholic) Church.  Such totalitarian forces are inimical to the fundamental characteristics that define what it means to be human—imagination, creativity, and, ultimately, autonomy.  Thus, Pan’s Labyrinth sees the defining characteristic of mankind—the thing that makes human beings special—as the capacity to imagine, to create, to exercise individual autonomy.  And so, the problem with totalitarianism (in any form) is that it attempts to suppress the human spirit, the human imagination, and the (free) exercise of human autonomy.  It does not allow people living under it to (at least, fully) express those characteristics that make them human.  It attempts to make people sub-human.  This is the problem presented by the world of the film.

Understanding the world of the film is thus the key to understanding the whole story.  For, the bleak, ugly world of oppressive totalitarianism depicted in the film is the plight from which the film’s heroine seeks redemption.  The heroine is an eleven-year-old girl named Ofelia.  She and her mother Carmen have traveled to Vidal’s military outpost.  Carmen (having previously been widowed) has married Captain Vidal and become pregnant with his child, and Vidal insists that it is only fitting that a son be born in the place where his father is.

Ofelia is a girl with a great and wonderful imagination.  Her introduction in the film begins with a shot of a book of fairytales which she is holding in her hands.  Ofelia is young enough to still be pure at heart and “unspoiled” by adulthood.  She is compared in the film to the two other female leading characters, Carmen (Ofelia’s mother) and Mercedes (the chief maidservant at the outpost).  These two characters represent two possible futures for Ofelia.  Either she will, like her mother, quietly submit to authority and give up that which truly makes her human—in which case she will, like her mother, die a slow and meaningless death; or, she will be more like Mercedes, who rebels against Vidal by aiding the rebels.

Amidst the bloody conflict between Vidal’s fascist troops and the rebels, Ofelia discovers an ancient underground labyrinth near the outpost.  In this labyrinth resides a faun.  The faun (incorrectly called “Pan” in the English translation of the film’s title) tells Ofelia that she is actually a princess—Princess Moanna, daughter of the king of the underworld.  Her father has had portals opened “all over the world” to allow his daughter’s return, and this labyrinth is the last of them.  Before she can return to her true home world, however, she must complete three tasks, which (says the faun) are “to make sure that your essence is intact, that you have not become a mortal.”  Pan’s Labyrinth is thus the story of Ofelia’s quest for redemption from this world by returning to her true home world.

What is most relevant and instructive for us, however, is the way that she obtains this redemption.  First, it is significant that it is Ofelia herself who obtains this redemption.  The film thus depicts redemption as something gained by human effort.  In biblical categories, this is works-righteousness, salvation by human works or efforts; and it is emphatically condemned in the Bible, most explicitly by the apostle Paul (e.g., Romans 3:20; Titus 3:5).  The Bible teaches that man is sinful and is unable to save himself from his sin by any means.

Second, the way that Ofelia obtains redemption is by her disobedience to authority.  In each of the three tasks that Ofelia performs, she disobeys in some way.  For the third and final task, for example, Ofelia disobeys the faun when he asks her to hand over her newborn baby brother to him so that the faun can spill some of her brother’s blood (“the blood of an innocent”) in order to open the last portal to her home world.  Ofelia thereby sacrifices her own life to protect her brother from harm: seconds later, she is fatally shot by Vidal.  In this way, the film makes it evident that, in the face of oppressive totalitarian institutions and belief systems, the way to redemption is to assert one’s own autonomy over against all external authorities.

Here is where we must contrast Ofelia’s way to redemption with biblical concepts of obedience and redemption.  The Bible shows us that Adam, the first man, was created in a covenant relationship with God.  According to the terms of this covenant relationship, Adam was to obey all of God’s laws and commands perfectly.  If Adam had obeyed all of God’s laws and commandments perfectly during this “probationary” period (the Bible doesn’t say how long), he would have earned the reward of eternal life with God (for this is the purpose for which man was created).  Tragically, however, he disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Adam chose to rebel against God, to disobey his command, and he (along with all mankind and all creation) was cursed.  This is ultimately the reason for all the suffering in the world—yes, even for all the suffering in your life.  This is why Jesus came to earth.  Jesus was the Second Adam.  He successfully obeyed all the laws and commandments of God perfectly, so that he redeemed his people (the church) from sin.  Unlike for Ofelia, in the Bible salvation comes through obedience to authority (specifically, God).

Just as remarkable as the film itself is the fact that the director, Guillermo del Toro, is an unbeliever.  Although he was raised Catholic, it seems (based on the directors commentary and various interviews) that he was never serious about it, rather becoming critical of and bitter toward the Church.  For del Toro, this world is a world of great suffering, and the cause of this suffering is oppressive authoritarian and totalitarian institutions, governments, rulers, and ideologies that attempt to extinguish the human spirit.  In this film, del Toro imagines that there must be some way out of this ugly world of pain and suffering.  There must be some way of redemption.  In this way, Pan’s Labyrinth testifies to the universal human longing for redemption from this world of pain, suffering and great evil.  Yet, for del Toro, such redemption can only come through our own plans and efforts, and it can only come by disobeying totalitarian institutions and belief systems and exercising one’s own autonomy.  The Christian, by contrast, knows that he cannot save himself but rather needs someone else greater than he to save him.  For this, he has Jesus Christ, a sure and living hope.  As the apostle Paul says, he “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4).


*Colby is a 2012 graduate of Westminster Seminary California (M.Div.). He is currently living in the Kansas City (MO) area.  Since last June, he has been serving as long-term pulpit supply for Park Woods Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Overland Park, KS.


Here is another take on the film, that we believe serves well to read together with today’s post.

Seeing, believing and life eternal

  1. Donna Lamberth says:

    this had given me more of an understanding i think

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