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Wandering through 'Pan's Labyrinth'

Pan’s Labyrinth is rare and haunting, brutally violent and horrifying, aching and longing, innocent and set apart, dark and sad—and it left me breathless and pensive and hushed and quiet-to-the-core. It was a strangely physical reaction, not unlike the feeling I get after a very long, intense run on a still, silent and bracingly cold day. When my ears, face and fingers burn and hurt because my blood feels hot but the air is almost glacial. When my eyes sting and my heart pounds deep, thudding beats in the quiet. It hurts—but it was worthy and ultimately leaves me more settled and at rest than when I began.

Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in the early 1940s, the film follows young Ofelia, a girl whose father recently died and who’s moved to a secluded but volatile region ruled by a ruthless Captain to whom her mother—ill and pregnant—is now married. Reality is grim, unflinchingly violent, terrifying and erratic (as times of war are apt to be), but also—at least in Ophelia’s case—mythical and Other-ly. She’s told by a horned faun (who smells “like the earth”) she encounters in the center of an ancient labyrinth that she’s the princess of a long-forgotten underworld (but she’s forgotten who she is) and can return if she proves herself with three quests. And so the painful, compelling, horrifying and ultimately violent yet redemptive tale unfolds.

And lest you ponder whether its ending is not so (as I did), let me remind you (as the commenter at the bottom of this post did me) that the ending of the film sits in the shadow of the parable/tale of the rose of redemption that brings eternal life at the beginning of the film. Take the story at its whole and the scale substantially tips.

They really don’t make many films like this—at least, if they do, I haven’t seen them. It’s themes of redemption, suffering, choice, compromise, sacrifice and love are deeply threaded and woven and tangled. It belongs to those categories of stories that birth long talks through late hours about God, life, and the nature of Darkness and Light.

Perhaps strength is lent to the film’s themes because the fairy world Ofelia encounters is not the picturesque, soft and stunningly beautiful one that we find in many storybooks or films (not that there’s not strength in those portrayals as well). Instead, the creatures of this fairy world are fleshy, other-ly and border at moments on almost-horrifying. Perhaps it’s not unlike the contrast between the cherubs and soft winged angels we put on greeting cards and candles and the absolute terrifying presence these beings emanate when people encounter them in the Bible. But perhaps they only appear this way in our world because our fallen-ness taints them so. When we see them in their world (as we do the film’s creatures at one point), we see them in the light and rule of a Father-King and suddenly no longer fear or shudder.

I purposefully didn’t read any reviews before I saw the film, instead going off the recommendation of a couple of friends and the knowledge that the film was getting rave reviews (a whopping 96% at Rotten Tomatoes, with 147 positive reviews and only six in the negative), including from Christian critics at Christianity Today and Crosswalk.com. It was a good decision, so I’m not going to say much more, but leave you with a small swath from Jeffrey Overstreet’s review at CT (where he gave the film a full four stars out of four):

This film would probably have delighted Tolkien and Lewis, who believed that fairy tales—even dark and troubling myths like this one—serve to help us explore spiritual mysteries and apprehend the reality of grace as it glimmers through a glass, or in this case a screen, darkly. Pan’s Labyrinth is a parable so profound it's like the gospel masquerading in a mysterious disguise.
If you’ve seen the film or want to read more about it, peruse the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, Hollywood Jesus reviews here and here, Peter Chataway’s post getting behind the director’s worldview (and the film’s connection to Narnia), this post at Overstreet’s blog (be sure to read the comments), Barbara Nicolosi’s harsh review (for whom the scale does not tip) or Wikipedia’s site.

[A note of caution: This film is rated R and contains graphic violence. Here are CT’s considerations: “This fairy tale is not for children. It's for grownups who will recognize the frightful darkness and violence of the world in this story. A man gets teeth beaten from his head. There are graphic shootings and scenes of torture. Men use foul language and take the Lord's name in vain. The fairy-tale elements serve to remind us that make-believe helps us realize the hope of redemption in the midst of the dangerous wilderness of the fallen world.”]

(Image: poster and photos copyrighted by Warner Bro. Pictures and Picturehouse; via Wikipedia, the film’s website, and ComingSoon)

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