What does Pan's Labyrinth teach us about memory?

It is the opening sequence of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.Over a black screen, someone’s panting breath grows louder. Words flash: “Spain, 1944” (1:13). Like the caption of a photograph, the descriptions make truth statements. “The civil war is over” (1:22). ‘Is’ leaves no room for debate. So, this is a story about a historical event; this is a retelling. As light levels increase, someone begins humming a melody. The camera pans up—droplets whoosh from right to left—and twists over Ofelia’s face. Visually, time moves backward. Yet the melody, as viewers will become familiar, plays in its normal, ‘forward’ direction. Is Ofelia being healed through the magical reversal of time or is the tape rewinding to play her death again? A narrator interrupts, leaving—“A long, long time ago”—the question unanswered (1:57).⁠1 The attempts at fact invoked by the words are challenged by the fairy-tale trope of a long, long time past. Auditory communication requires a linear temporality, so as the camera zooms into and through Ofelia’s eye—“in the Underground Realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a princess who dreamt of the human world”—time begins to move forward, but in a fantasy land outside of time. The facade of historicity is replaced by the fairy-tale theme of a ‘fall’ from grace, so this is a story about the homeward return of an eternal princess. Which story is the story?

Already in the opening sequence of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth the boundaries between ‘fiction’ or ‘history,’ ‘fantasy’ or memory,’ and ‘forward’ or ‘backward’ are blurred. In this essay I'm curious how the opening sequence and the re-presentation of similar images near the end of the film highlight the instability of these boundaries when it comes to collective memory.

The image of Ofelia in the car with her mother viewed in the context of the introductory scene of Ofelia’s death frames Pan’s Labyrinth as a flashback film. According to Rawle, a flashback is “something located in the past, but intrinsic to our understanding of the present” (Rawle 44). From the beginning, the viewer knows that Ofelia’s life is oriented around her death. And yet death, in this story, is not destruction. Indeed, both moments of Ofelia’s death serve as starting points for new stories: in the beginning, Ofelia’s death serves to open the entire story of fantasy and the civil war; near the end, Ofelia’s death signals her predicted return to life in the Underground Realm. Surely there never was a young girl transitioning between two worlds with the help of a Faun, but in Ellis and Sánchez-Acre’s analysis of Pan’s Labyrinth, such ‘false’ representations of the past “allow [for the re-articulation and revisiting of] the moral and magic power of the unquiet dead” (2011, 174). Here ‘flashback’ takes on a new meaning, where to flash-back is to re-write the past in ways that accommodate novel forms of understanding. So, the significance of the re-presentation of the pain of Ofelia’s death—repeated like a sacred chant or incantation—symbolizes the healing power of bearing witness in ‘embellished’ or ‘false’ ways. In this way, Pan’s Labyrinth is an important film in processing the collective trauma of the historical Spanish Civil War (Ellis and Sánchez-Acre). However, I would like to turn to the re-presentation of Ofelia’s death to explore how, between the film and the viewer, memory takes on this revisionary lens. 

I call the repeated images of Ofelia’s death ‘re-presentations’ because each sequence is markedly different. That is, Ofelia’s death is not reproduced exactly as it appeared first, but each time echos with nuanced differences. I will look at the four re-presentations of Ofelia’s death—first is the visually-reversed shot beginning at 1:30; second, after she is shot by Vidal at 1:47:00; third, when she is held by Mercedes at 1:59:00; and the fourth, when the camera returns to Ofelia after showing her return to the Underground Realm—to show that the film acknowledges its own use of media to show the permeability of multiple boundaries. 

The most obvious difference is that the first showing is ‘backward’ while the later sequences appear in chronological sync with the larger film narrative. As I noted earlier, however, the melody in this clip plays ‘forward,’ which poses a central question about the meaning of the scene: is Ofelia being healed through the magical reversal of time or is the tape rewinding to play her death again? The apparent magical revival is not born out because, by film’s end, Ofelia is still mortally wounded. Yet the semblance of revival reinforces the notion that what this film is doing is going back to re-view history. Indeed, to re-vive is to endue with life once more. Thus, the appropriate answer to the question is, yes, both. Ofelia’s death is rewound in order re-vision/revise its significance. 

Examining other differences will highlight just what this significance is for the viewer. In the first scene Ofelia’s breath is shallow and fast, and the melody is hummed in precise, near-staccato quarter notes.  In the third, Ofelia’s breath is deeper and slower, and as Mercedes hums in fluid legato, the muscular quiver of tears is audible. Mercedes’ humming blurs the boundaries between film and score. As the yellow glow of the Underground World appears, though, the vocal quivering straightens out, and the low, confident voice of Ofelia’s father sounds, asking her to “arise”. These three transitions—wavering to confident, blue to yellow, and the appearance of the father’s voice—make Ofelia’s death comforting and beautiful. The discomfort of the first scene is resolved by the fantastic assurance that Ofelia’s life transcends death. It is important to note that in the fantasy narrative of Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia marks the human world from the Underground Realm. It is unclear, however, whether the blossoming of the fig tree in the final scene of the film is a product of magical intervention from the Underground Realm or a result of the removal of the glutenous giant toad, an action Ofelia took during her stay in the human world. The boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ in terms on impact are not clear. Nonetheless, Ofelia’s return suggests that the pain of war, although perhaps incomprehensible (Elaine Scarry 1985), can be transformed into something other than pain. Under this view, ‘resolution’ takes on multiple meanings.

Musical resolution typically signifies the return to a key center, but in the film the resolution and recycling of the melody coincides with both instances of the transformation of death into new story. This reveals that resolution in the technical sense differs from the way resolution operates in Pan’s Labyrinth, namely that, as phenomenologist John Russon says, “what we naively take to be ‘hearing a note’ is… truly a hearing of what the single note is not” (Russon 2003, 18). Or, framed positively, any single note or resolution is always heard in the context of the notes heard thus far, and resonates with and subsumes the notes yet to come. I visualize music in this view as a horizontal hourglass, the narrow, present moment referring in both directions to a dense, full past and future. Steven Rawle’s discussion of Deleuzian memory-images recalls Bergson’s notion of an inverted cone, where the plane of the actual, present moment intersects with the tip of a cone that “represents the totality of the memory’s accumulated virtual imagery” (2011, 42). This intersection point is important because it is the point where “the actual and virtual form a circuit into indiscernibility” (2011, 43). In other words, the interface between past and present is complicated, and requires hermeneutic nuance to navigate in the case of film. The resolution of the melody in the third and fourth re-presentations thus symbolizes the sense that any view of a moment in film is contingent on previous exposure and shadows future developments. In this way, the boundaries between past and future fold in to the present moment of musical resolutions in the film.

This is where a second repercussion of the term ‘resolution’ takes hold. Etymologically, a ‘resolution’ is a ‘loosening’ of something into constituent parts (OED, “resolution”). If the symbolism attached to the third re-presentation of Ofelia’s death is that death is not negation, then the fourth is that the pain of war is transformable. This meaning is born out of the dissolution of scenes of war into the fantastic story of the regrowth of the fig tree. The melody is again hummed in precise, studio terms. Mercedes is no longer the source of comfort in lullaby form. As the camera zooms into Ofelia’s face—last time the camera was this still in this position it zoomed into her eye and began the story—her breath comes to calm stop.  Ofelia’s story in the human form is over. The camera pans out again, indicating a departure from previous visual motifs, and pans to Mercedes’ face. Mercedes’ voice breaks with sobs, and the melody pauses where it would normally resolve. This interruption prompts the recognition of the separation of film and score. The camera continues to pan up, and the melody returns to a delayed resolution as a the narrator’s voice introduces—“And it is said”—the final fantastic element—“that the princess returned to her father’s kingdom” (1:52:00). The vertical pan distances the resistance fighters from the fantastic images of the fig tree. The series of separations in the fourth re-presentation of Ofelia’s death highlights for the viewer the permeability of the boundaries between fantasy and history.

In the present analysis, Pan’s Labyrinth can be seen as flashback film that is aware of its own multimedia elements, and uses these elements to complicate the viewer’s notion of time and memory. 

Works Cited:

del Toro, Guillermo. 2006. Pan’s Labyrinth. Spain, Mexico: Warner Brothers.

"resolve, n.". OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.questu.ca:2048/view/Entry/163732rskey=sa59if&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed February 06, 2018).

Russon, John. Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. State University of New York Press, 2003.

Scarry, Elaine. 1984. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP.

Ellis, Jonathan and María Sánchez-Acre. 2011. “The Unquiet Dead : Memories of the Spanish  Civil War in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan's Labyrinth.” In Millennial Cinema : Memory in  Global Film, edited by Amresh Sinha and Terence McSweeney, 173–91. New York: Columbia University Press.

1. This translation is my own, the rest is quoted from the English subtitles of the film.

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