“Pan’s Labyrinth” and the Logic of Sacrifice

“Pan’s Labyrinth” and the Logic of Sacrifice February 25, 2022

Image credit: Warner Brothers/Telecinco

Last weekend, while I had the house to myself, I treated myself to the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of one of my favorite films of all time—Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. I was probably 16 or 17 when I watched it for the first time, and I was immediately entranced by its eerie ambiance and memorable conclusion. I’ve watched it almost every year or so since then, and honestly it still doesn’t get old.

Set during the Spanish Civil War, the film begins with the young girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) being sent to live with her terrifying new stepfather, the fascist Captain Vidal. At the very heart of the ruined labyrinth behind her new forest home, however, she encounters an enigmatic (and menacing) faun with a message for her: she is, in fact, the lost daughter of the King of the Underworld. In order to return to her true home and reclaim her royal inheritance, she must complete three tasks to prove that the mortal world has not corrupted her. For the rest of the film, it’s left ambiguous whether Ofelia’s quest—which runs in parallel with escalating war violence involving her murderous stepfather—is a figment of her imagination, or a genuine glimpse into a metaphysical reality lying “in, with, and under” the world of appearances.

(Spoilers ahead. This movie is over a decade old, but even so.)

Like most great movies, this is a film in which I see something fresh every time I revisit it. This time around, I noticed that much of the film heavily tracks the ancient Hymn of the Pearl, a story associated with Gnosticism involving a lost celestial prince who falls from transcendence into time. (Amazingly, I’ve only found a single other commentator—in a comment box on an obscure website—who’s made this association.)

In the concluding moments of the film, Ofelia—who has kidnapped her newborn half brother from Vidal’s clutches—flees to the center of the labyrinth as rebels attack her father’s base. There she meets the faun, who presents her with her final task: shed the blood of the boy, even just a pinprick’s worth, to open the portal back to her father’s kingdom. Only the blood of an innocent, the faun explains, will do the trick. Ofelia refuses; turning away, she is met by Captain Vidal, who shoots and apparently fatally wounds her. As Ofelia struggles for life, her blood spatters down upon the ancient stone at the center of the labyrinth—and in that instant, it becomes clear that the requisite “blood of an innocent” is her own. This, in short, is the real final task.

What’s particularly fascinating about this scene is that there is a double repudiation here, of both the sacrificial logic of ancient paganism and the metaphysical logic of classical Gnosticism. From the pagan perspective, Ofelia’s half brother is a “child of sin,” born of Captain Vidal, and Ofelia has the opportunity to offer his blood up as a sacrifice. In so doing, she would appease the spirits driven underground by Vidal’s industrialization and militarism, as well as atone for her own errors earlier in the film. And from the Gnostic perspective, the shedding of another’s blood is positively nothing at all, a necessary moment that permits Ofelia’s own transition from the world of illusions and shadows back to her true reality.

By contrast, Ofelia not only refuses to participate in the pagan “economy of sacrifice” in which the blood of the weak has no value except as an appeasement, she also delivers herself over voluntarily to the powers of the “fallen cosmos” rather than simply fleeing from them. In her sacrifice—and what appears to be her subsequent “resurrection to glory at the hand of the father,” which we also witness—both of these schemes are undone. We have, in short, a distinctively Christian coda to this film. To be clear, it isn’t a straight Narnia-style allegory by any means—Ofelia herself isn’t a sinless figure—but its narrative logic points in a profoundly Christian direction. (And this is all the more interesting given that del Toro himself is, to my knowledge, not presently religious.) Heck, there’s even a stained-glass cross behind her “true father” that I never noticed when watching on my lower-quality DVD copy.

In any event, I take Pan’s Labyrinth to be one of the most interesting and compelling examples of a story that sounds in a Christian theological-philosophical register without simply rehashing or retelling accounts from the Bible (I’d also put Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Terence Malick’s A Hidden Life, and Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires in this category).

Among other things, what Pan’s Labyrinth captures in artistic fashion is the uncanny strangeness of Jesus redeeming the world by submitting to its authority—even illicitly exercised—and in so doing undoing its claim to ultimacy (something like what David Lloyd Dusenbury gets at in his book The Innocence of Pontius Pilate). We and the world are not left with a Christ who merely sojourned in the world in order to pass on the truths of a higher cosmic order; we have a Christ who suffered to break the powers of that world for the sake of the undeserving. The “blood of the innocent” opens a way for us, too.

And that is an infinitely significant thought.

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