I saw Pan's Labyrinth over the holiday weekend; and unlike the vast majority of films these days, I was still puzzling over the meaning days later. I've been unhappy with it the last few days because I felt the final scenes forced me into a perspective that I thought essentially negated the very story premise that I had watched during the course of the movie.
Last night I figured out the exegetical work around. And now, happily, I don't have to puzzle anymore; though I'm also sure there's a lot left of the movie I haven't yet worked through.
The last movie I saw, by the way, that took so much work to figure out was Hero. And like Hero, the exegetical solution to the film has to do with absence.
Spoilers for Pan's Labyrinth below.
Anyway, this is what I came up with last night.
I finally solved the magic trick of the movie. It takes place in first person serial - that means that there are several points of view that show us individual first person perspectives on the situation in Pan's Labyrinth. None of them is the authorial viewpoint, the perspective that shows us the correct interpretation of events, though Ofelia's comes closest; they are only their own viewpoint - and thus no one voice is the arbiter of what actually happened.
So we have Ofelia's POV - whose name inevitably makes us think of a dead, mad, young innocent girl. In this tale, Ofelia has a foot in two worlds. And she is the mediator between.
Then we have scenes from the POV of the fairy. The camera distinctly cuts away from Ofelia for the first time and shows us how things look from his POV.
Then we have the faun. That makes two points of view from the fairy world.
We also have Vidal, the cruel tyrant from the Spanish civil war.
Then we have Mercedes. Thus, to match, we are shown scenes from two characters in the "real" world.
The faun and Vidal parallel. They are both scary, violent authority figures -
Mercedes and the fairy parallel. Both are brave helpers who believe in Ofelia and love her.
At the end of the movie, Ofelia is shot and as she is shot she sees herself successfully returning to her own kingdom in the fairy world. But as she is dying, the POV moves away from her; and by the very end of the movie, the perspective we are given shows Ofelia merely dying, and we, thus, are maneuvered into drawing the necessary corollary - that her magic universe is suddenly and curdlingly diminished to the fantastic imaginings of a young girl who went too far into her own labyrinth. Which got her, tragically, killed. All of this reflects Mercedes perspective - and what we know is that Mercedes does not believe in magic.
Thus, the conclusion we are led to reflects Mercedes view of the world. A young girl dies by standing up for good against an insane tyrant and it is a great tragedy. And after the tears and deep heartache for another innocent killed by a cruel man in a cruel war, it's all over.
Except for the feeling of purposelessness that this viewpoint leads us right to, with no means of retreat, like the cliff edge of the void.
Yet, this stark view of the universe negates the entire narrative of Ofelia's tale - the tale we've just watched for the past few hours - so that the film leaves us on a troubled note. This perspectival disjunction is unsettling; it makes only a very grim sense of what we have seen. Which tends to render the entire film empty. But this very disjunction works as an exegetical siren call, leaving us desirous of working through the disjunction of the movie to film it out.
Consider again. The drastic change in perspective, from Ofelia to Mercedes is the effective narrative "magic trick," that convinces us everything we saw was a story that Ofelia made up and thus "not real"; from that point on, from the moment of Ofelia's death, we no longer have access to Ofelia's POV. We only see Mercedes' view of what occurred. And she, a redoubtable lady, does not believe in all that childish nonsense; for her, caught up in the tragedy of war, deaths of innocents are tragic and heartbreaking. And there is no meaning to them beyond the senselessness of what just occurred in the fight for freedom.
But elsewhere in the film we were already told that after Ofelia "died" all memory of her would be forgotten except small signs for those who could see them.
And Mercedes, certainly at that tragic point in her life, is unable to see any small signs.
But her POV is only one POV of the whole. It is the ending note, one note of resolution. But the story already told us in its own terms what happens to Ofelia.
So I would say that Mercedes' perspective is pshat - the plain line reading of the text. But what is also true, in the story's own terms, is that the character who mediated the two universes is no longer present.
Hence, there are the other levels of exegesis to consider: remez, drasha and sod (hints, allegory, secrets/mysteries), and these aspects of exegesis give us leave to interpret the tale differently. And we should not expect, in a story of this complication, for all points of view to be consistent - when are they ever?
So in the end, the audience gets to decide which story he saw based upon his own character, his perspective, his penchant for things and his view of the world; was it a magic tale? Or a story of an insane girl caught up in war? Is Ofelia's complete absence from the finale an indicator? Or does it merely signify her death?
Or should they regard the multiplicity of viewpoints, and no clear authorial solution, as the multiplicity of the universe, where often times different perspectives on the world are at war with each other.
Anyway, I feel better now that I have resolved my exegetical difficulty. I knew there was something lurking there then the surface appearance.
It just took me a while to dig for the key to open the lock.