Speech Acts in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth

The importance of words and storytelling is immediately apparent in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (Spanish: El laberinto del fauno, Spain/Mexico, 2006).  The film opens with the voiceover of a narrator, who describes a fantastical subterranean world where a young princess once dreamt of the world up above.  The unseen storyteller recounts how, one day, the princess snuck away, up to the human world, where the sunlight erased her memory of who she was. Eventually the princess died, but her father believed that she would one day return to the underworld.

From this point, the viewer is transported to a different, much less magical world: that of Francisco Franco’s Spain in 1944.  We follow the story of Ofelia, a young girl who, with her pregnant mother, is moving to the Spanish countryside to live with her new stepfather, the fascist Captain Vidal, who is ruthlessly fighting the guerilla resistance.  Fairy tale and history interweave throughout the rest of the film, as Ofelia encounters magical creatures and is assigned a series of tasks that she must complete.

Beyond the fairy tale itself, the importance of words and speech are of constant importance in Pan’s Labyrinth.  Many crucial moments center on speech acts, upon which the life, death and identity of the characters hinge.  For some, the very inability to speak has deadly consequences.  Speech acts (often used interchangeably with the term “performance utterances”) are statements that do not merely describe reality, but which change the reality that they are describing.  These can be official, in such acts as bequeathing property, declaring a couple husband and wife, reciting a creed, or pronouncing someone guilty.  However, even common day-to-day utterances are speech acts, such as promises, commands, and requests.   In Pan’s Labyrinth, we see both official and casual speech acts.  Furthermore, other casual statements of opinion by characters in the film become reality in dramatic ways, suggesting that their words have altered the course of events.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, names and titles are of great importance, especially in the relationship between Captain Vidal and Ofelia.  This becomes clear from the first scene in which we see Ofelia and her mother, Carmen, as they ride in the car on their way to their new home.  Carmen instructs her daughter, “Call him father; it’s only a word.”  This dismissal of words as irrelevant immediately follows another admonition: that Ofelia is too old to be reading fairy tales, which is what has occupied her during the trip.  However, the Ofelia maintains her devotion to the importance of words.  When she arrives at the house, Mercedes, the housekeeper, refers to the Captain as Ofelia’s father.  Ofelia is quick to correct her.   Later in the film, when Ofelia misses a dinner party, Carmen scolds her, saying that she has hurt her father with her absence.  Ofelia replies, “You mean the Captain?”  Her refusal to bestow the Captain with this title (identification being a speech act that alters reality) likely has less to do with his lack of biological relationship to her, and more to do with his harshness.

On the other hand, Ofelia does receive a new title and name when she is informed by the Faun that she is the Princess Moanna.  Although she at first seems unsure of this, she soon becomes convinced.  As she is about to take a bath to prepare for the dinner party, her mother speaks to her through the bathroom door, telling her that she will look like a princess in her new dress.  As Ofelia hears this, she examines her shoulder in the mirror, finding the crescent-shaped birthmark that the Faun said would be there, proof of her royalty.   Later that day, as she goes about the first task assigned to her by the Faun, we see that she has adopted this new name.  Crawling through the mud under the roots of the tree, she confronts the giant frog, declaring, “I am Princess Moanna, and I am not afraid of you.”  By taking the name and declaring her bravery, Ofelia is engaging in a speech act, making both her royalty and courage reality.


Ofelia learning of her noble heritage from the Faun.

Ofelia uses speech to change reality in a more visible, magical way when she enacts the speech act of classification.  During a momentary stop along the car trip to the country, Ofelia wanders in the woods to stretch her legs.  She sees a strange, flying insect, which she declares imaginatively to be a fairy.  Although it doesn’t truly to appear to be, she sees the same insect later.  Once again, she states that it is a fairy, holding up an illustration in her story book to point out the similarity.  The creature instantly transforms itself into a fairy, bringing to life both her spoken words and those written in the book.  Once again, classification is a speech act that alters how we think of and interact with the thing being categorized.   In this case, Ofelia classifies the unknown creature as “fairy,” and from then on, interacts with it as such, either thanks to the magical power of her words, or because the words have sparked her imagination.

Words are also used to refer with certainty to the gender of Carmen’s unborn child.  Throughout the film, the child is referred to as male.  As she struggles with nausea on the car ride to the countryside, Carmen tells Ofelia, “Your brother is acting up.” When they arrive, the Captain greets Carmen with, “Bienvenidos,” laying his hand on her belly and using the plural, masculine form of “welcome.”  Such word choice may be due to the fact that in Spanish, the default gender is masculine (hermano can mean both “brother” and “sibling;” bienvenidos is used to address a group of mixed genders).  However, it is made clear that the Captain is verbally willing the unborn baby to be a boy.  At one point, the doctor asks him, “What makes you so sure the baby is a male?”  The Captain replies sternly (and with a profane inference), “No me jodas,” or, “Don’t mess with me.”

The more official utterances typically cited as examples of speech acts also appear throughout the film.  Marriage, for example, is what has uprooted Ofelia and her mother, bringing them to this unfamiliar place and under the control of the Captain.  On their first night in the countryside, Ofelia complains to her mother, “Why did you have to marry him?” as they lie alone in bed, listening to the unfamiliar sounds outside.  The irony, of course, is that while the scenery has changed, their situation has not; they are, for all intents and purposes, a single mother and her child, left on their own.

Decrees and propaganda are other speech acts which alter the reality of the people under them.  At the dinner party, the Captain announces the ration cards will be reduced to one per family.  This declaration is certain to have devastating impact on the families in the area, as one guest observes that he is not sure one ration card will be enough.  This concern is dismissed by the priest, who says that if people are careful, there will be enough (a statement made as he spoons fruit onto his plate from what nearly resembles a cornucopia, or symbol of plenty).  To solidify the unity of the dinner party, a toast is given by all, declaring that they are there “por gusto,” or “for pleasure.”  Toasts, like blessings, may be considered a sort of speech act, although this particular salute appears to be more like an oath of loyalty.

The importance of truth and promises are also discussed repeatedly throughout the film.  This is most dramatically presented in the case of a father and son who are captured by the fascist soldiers.  After finding socialist propaganda in their bags (speech that is, in this case, illegal), the father and son are questioned as their purpose in the area.  The men say that they are hunting rabbits, but the soldiers persist.  The son pleads with Vidal, “Captain, if my father says so, we were hunting rabbits,” making the point that there is an unbreakable bond between what this honest man says and what is reality.  The Captain, however, reacts to this assertion by killing the son in what is possibly the most graphically violent scene in the movie.  After killing him, the Captain reaches into the men’s satchel and pulls out two dead rabbits, revealing the truth of the father’s words.

While telling the truth did not save the father and son, for the rebel fighters it becomes clear that being able to speak at all is the key to saving their lives.  Upon finding a wounded rebel in the woods, the Captain asks if he can speak.  The man has a hole in his neck, and shakes his head that he cannot.  The Captain kills him immediately, as the man is of no use to him for information.

When the Captain captures Tarta, another rebel fighter, the importance of truth and speech is even clearer.  The man, who has a prominent stutter (the nickname “Tarta” is short for tartamudear, or “stutter”).  The Captain explains to the  that he must be able to trust everything that he says, taking out and displaying to the terrified man a series of torture devices.  With these, the Captain intends to ensure his victim’s honesty.  However, as he realizes that the man has a speech impediment, he laments to his second-in-command, “Damn, Garcés.  We catch one and he’s a stutterer.  We’ll be here all night.”  He then makes a deal with the prisoner, saying that if he can count to three without stuttering (cruelly imitating the man), then he will set him free.  He even turns to Garcés and asks him to confirm that the Captain’s word is all that it takes for Tarta to go free, without protest from anyone else; in other words, a command from the Captain is a speech that cannot be overruled.  Tarta, already bloodied, and taking deep breaths to calm himself, successfully counts, “Uno… dos…”   On tres, however, he stutters horribly, sealing his fate.

The Fairy

Fairy emerging from the statue’s mouth.

The importance of speech also plays a visual role throughout Pan’s Labyrinth in the use of mouths as a motif.  When Ofelia first encounters the large insect, which later proves to be a fairy, it is after first discovering an archaic stone statue, with a large, gaping hole for a mouth.  It is from this hole that the insect suddenly appears.  When they finally arrive at the house, she sees the insect again.  She chases it to a strange, stone archway, with a similar face carved into the top, with the same gaping mouth.  This is the entrance to the labyrinth, inside which she will later meet the Faun and discover the entrance back to the magical kingdom.

Open Mouth

The mouth at the entrance of the labyrinth.

The mouth becomes notable once again at the end, in the case of Captain Vidal.  After discovering that Mercedes has been providing assistance to the rebels, he restrains her and threatens her with torture, as he did to her brother, Pedro.  Mercedes manages to break free, and slices open the corner of Vidal’s mouth with a knife.  The effect is grotesque: a lopsided, Joker-like grin.  It is appropriate that the mouth from which so many vicious orders came is made to look as hideous as the violent results of his words.

However, even this is not the end of Vidal.  It is not until the conclusion of the film, as he emerges from the labyrinth alone, facing a congregation of rebels, that he is truly defeated.  His demise is not merely his death, but the loss of his identity, which comes in the form of his name.  Knowing that the rebels will kill him, and intending to face death like a man, he says, “Tell my son the time that his father died.  Tell him…”  Mercedes interrupts his speech, declaring, “No.  He won’t even know your name.”  By keeping the name of this man from the boy, Mercedes is erasing Vidal’s existence, taking the speech act of naming and putting it in reverse.

This fixation on the potency of speech may well be a reference to the suppression of speech under Francisco Franco’s rule.  In addition to the propaganda that was disseminated and limitations on what could be said, Franco also restricted the very language in which one could say it.   Although millions of people in Spain spoke regional languages such as Basque, Galician and Catalan, all official language was ordered to be in Spanish.  This included language in religious ceremonies, schools, official documents, and in advertising.

As a result of these policies over the course of three decades, regional languages suffered the loss of many speakers.  However, with the transition to democracy after 1975, there was a resurgence of regional language, and efforts were made to revive the languages (although the issue of Castilian Spanish versus regional languages in schools continues to be hotly debated).

Ultimately, Pan’s Labyrinth illustrates the power of speech, and that those who wield power do not necessarily have the last word.  Though fictional, the film reflects the reality of Franco’s Spain, in the same way that Ofelia’s beloved fairy tales proved to hold an immutable truth about the magic that can be found in life, even in the most oppressive environments.

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