It is all one; therefore I say,
he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
he covers the faces of its judges —
if it is not he, who then is it?
Take seriously Roger Ebert’s description “A fairy tale for adults,” used in the promotion of this film, when considering this movie—especially the phrase “for adults.” This does indeed have the hallmarks of a fairytale, and although a child is the heroine, the film definitely is not for children. The scenes of torture and suspense are far too intense for a child, and possibly for some adults as well. However, this story of a young girl caught up in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and finding freedom or release in the world of fantasy makes a powerful statement about the resiliency of the human spirit.
The film begins with a voiceover telling the fairytale in which Princess Moanna, daughter of the King of the Underworld, acts on her longing to see the upper world. She reaches the human world, but ultimately dies, far from home. Her father longs for the return of her soul, vowing not to die himself until she is returned. Then we see young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a book of fairytales in hand, and her mother Carmen (Ariadne Gil) on their journey to join her husband, a captain in Gen. Franco’s victorious army. Capt. Vidal (Sergi Lopez) has been sent to a remote area in the mountains to destroy the last vestige of the Republican army, a band of guerillas hiding in the mountains who venture forth from time to time to attack government outposts. We soon see that the Captain is a cruel man willing to use any inhuman means in the fight against the enemy.
Ofelia pointedly tells her mother several times not to call Vidal her father, her real father having died some time ago. When they arrive Ofelia meets Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), one of the servants, and instantly takes a liking to her. Mercedes turns out to be in contact with the guerillas, supplying them with food and medicines stolen from the government supplies. All too aware of the Captain’s cruelty, Ofelia soon discovers another world when a large dragonfly she takes as a fairy leads her to a large tree. She meets a strange creature whose name, he declares, “only the wind and the trees can pronounce,” but whom she can call Pan (Doug Jones). The faun tells her that she must complete a series of tests before the full moon. This leads her into a series of adventures that brings her into conflict with both Vidal and her mother, and—-
Guillermo del Toro, writer and director of the film, can reconnect you with those days when you first thrilled to Grimm’s’ Fairytales, Alice in Wonderland, or The Wizard of Oz. The cruel horrors of the fascist regime might well lead one to conclude with the patriarch Job that God “ mocks at the calamity of the innocent.” To the north of Spain, the movie reminds us when a character refers to Gen. Eisenhower’s forces landing on the beaches of Normandy, the forces of barbaric evil are on the defensive, but not within the Iberian peninsula itself—the cruel reign of Gen. Franco would go on for several more decades, the tyrant finally dying in bed. Ofelia finds freedom in the realm of her imagination, a fantasy world not unlike that spun by a loving father trying to protect his innocent son in the midst of a Nazi concentration camp in Life Is Beautiful.
Caution: The last question contains spoilers.
1) What fairytales do you remember, or had an impact on you as a child? What aspects of terror or violence are contained in them, especially in the Brothers Grimm? (You might also compare the original Pinocchio to the Disney version.) What do you think of the attempt of adults to purge fairytales of their darker elements? Do you think children should be shielded from the dark side of life? Or—?
2) How does our imagination fade or even die as we grow older? How do you think such movies as this one can rekindle or feed it? What is it that Ofelia gains from her fantasy world?
3) She is given three tests or challenges to meet: how is this typical of such tales? What ones can you recall from other stories, such as those from the Arthurian legends? How can these relate to the tasks we face in life?
4) How do Mercedes and the Doctor, like Ofelia, refuse to accept the status quo?
5) How is Ofelia’s decision at the end a Christ-like act? Also the Doctor’s? How do myth and “reality” blend together at the conclusion and point to a spiritual victory?