Ivana Baquero as Ofelia.

Warning: This post contains spoilers!

My favourite film of all time is Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it for you – but needless to say, watch it! I wanted to write something about the main character of the film, a girl named Ofelia, a character equally tragic as her namesake, Shakespeare’s Ophelia, because for me she is a brilliant young female hero.

In short, Ofelia is a child who comes to believe she is the reincarnation of Princess Moanna of the Underworld through meeting a mysterious faun in a labyrinth, all set against the backdrop of brutal fascist Spain in 1944. She, and Pan’s Labyrinth as a whole (in Spanish, El laborinto del fauno) deals with issues surrounding boundaries and liminality, gender and gothic mythology.

Ofelia is a character on the edges. She is aged 11 – not quite a child, but pre-pubescent. She creates a world that is part fantasy, part reality, and lives between the two. She even befriends people on the edges, the rebel communist fighters living in the woods, liminal both politically and physically. It is her place on the boundaries that emphasizes some of her best character traits – her bravery, curiosity and innocence; for example, her friendship with Mercedes.

She fits into the fairytale convention of girls passing through rites of passage into womanhood/independence, such as in Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. Ofelia’s rite of passage comes at the end of the film, when she sacrifices her own life rather than harm her baby brother, and is allowed to regain her seat in the Underworld as a princess. For me this scene shows how she grows as a character, from initially resenting her brother, to loving him.

The film also deals with gender. For example, despite Ofelia discovering disobedience throughout the film, she is still essentially good. By contrast, her stepfather, Captain Vidal, is unquestioningly evil from the moment we first see him on screen. The film has very polarized gendered character traits, where female is good, innocent and mystical, and male is bad, violent and evil. The only place that this isn’t true is in Ofelia’s fantasy world, where the faun’s motives are ambiguous and he doesn’t fit this gendered set of character types. Guillermo Del Toro himself has claimed that, while Fascism is a “boy’s game”, the film centers on the “11-year-old girl’s universe”. Having heard this quote long after first watching the film, I find it peculiar how I never noticed the disparity.

Ofelia, for me, is a wonderful young female character – brave, innocent, and capable of growth. Her tragedy is that she escapes the terrors of the real world through creating a fantasy world just as dark and scary.

-Jocelyn Anderson-Wood
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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