The Ending of Pan’s Labyrinth
SPOILER ALERT******SPOILER ALERT******SPOILER ALERT
Now that’s out of the way…
I was going to write a full review of Pan’s Labyrinth, but time constraints and laziness got in the way. Besides, what more is there to say? I agree with the other critics. It’s a masterpiece. So I thought I’d focus on the ending, which popular critics are barred from discussing.
Incredibly, the ending is somehow both tragic and happy. Ofelia dies, but in death she finds peace, fantasizing that she is reunited with her mother in a beautiful kingdom (or actually being reunited with her mother for eternity, if your inclination is more spiritual). Even though her life is too short, she fulfills one of our fondest hopes: that we die happy.
Interestingly, only at the end of the movie is it certain that the fantasy world is truly make-believe. Because the film starts with shots of the mythical kingdom, we’re predisposed to believe that Pan’s world is real, a magical reality beyond the reality we know–Narnia rather than Oz. The second shot in the film is of Ofelia reading a book about the fantasy world. On paper, this would suggest the preceding images of the kingdom are just a figment of Ofelia’s imagination, but the entrancing visual evidence is so strong we’re not so sure. Numerous fantasy films before have the used the strategy of suggesting that that the fantasy world is not real, only to end in a way that proves that it is real. We’re not about to fall into the trap of not believing again.
But given that the fantasy world is just a product of Ofelia’s imagination, what’s the point? Well, if one imagines the film’s story with Ofelia talking to walls instead of Faun, and nosing around a rotten tree rather than chasing a giant toad, then a dark narrative becomes a horribly depressing one. The tale is reduced to a child going to live with her cruel stepfather, her mother dying in childbirth and the stepfather shooting her. The end.
But Ofelia’s fantasies, imaginary as they may be, give meaning and purpose to her life. The fantasy is not merely an escape, it also motivates an act of heroism (when she takes the baby from Captain Vidal). The fantasy gives her the strength to bear an awful situation. It offers hope when her mother is dying, and gives her resolve in the face of danger. In its way, her attachment to the fantasy world echoes the motivating power of the great illusions that guide our lives: the ideal of a soulmate, belief in God, the promise of permanent happiness. Her plea to an imaginary creature not to kill the baby is no different than a mother’s prayer to God to save her sick child. It’s not the success of the prayer that’s important, but what it means for the supplicant.