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Mothering Relationships in Pan’s Labyrinth

Adriana Nassar

My name is Adriana Nassar and I am a rising sophomore.  By taking Film and Media studies and a writing class on film, I have realized that I enjoy analyzing movies by interpreting techniques such as lighting, editing, sound, and storylines.  Although I am a biology major, movies are a large part of my life and I am even the Film Committee chair this year for the Union Board. Adriana’s work was produced in Professor Maggie McCarthy’s Writing 101: Writing Criticism of Film.

“Ofelia. . .help me.” Carmen issues this plea with her outstretched, bloodied arm as Ofelia watches a crimson hue saturate her mother’s clothing. Throughout Guillermo del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, the reversed relationship between Carmen and her daughter creates an interesting dynamic, as Ofelia uses her maternal instinct to care for her ailing mother. Coincidentally, the character of Mercedes becomes the mother that Ofelia never had, both prior to and following Carmen’s death. Filmic attributes, including sound, editing, camera angles, and staging, contribute to this integral maternal aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth as the film follows the hierarchy of mothering care from Mercedes to Ofelia, and finally, to Carmen.

Most of the scenes in which only Carmen and Ofelia are present illustrate their altered relationship through Ofelia’s constant care and supervision of her distressed, ailing mother. One of the earliest scenes of the film, after the fractured family has arrived at Captain Vidal’s residence, includes a visit by the Captain’s physician, who diagnoses Carmen and provides her with medicine to help her recuperate. During the entirety of the scene, Ofelia remains at her mother’s bedside helping to cap the medicine bottle and to place it on the table by the bed. The doctor even tells Carmen, “Don’t hesitate to call. You or your nurse,” which of course, implies Ofelia. The blocking of this scene also interestingly demonstrates the female relationships present in the film. Carmen lies down during this entire scene, while Ofelia stands by the bed or leans over her mother. Mercedes remains in the background, standing watch near the door. Equating height with maternal care, Mercedes’ attentive nature in watching over Ofelia parallels the child’s helpful disposition toward her mother. As Ofelia crawls into the bed with her mother, Carmen asks her daughter to quiet her restless unborn son with one of her many stories. Ofelia is quick to oblige and gently strokes her mother’s stomach, reiterating a fantastic story. In this instance, Ofelia uses her mothering instinct to assist and relieve both her mother and brother. The end of the scene reinforces Ofelia’s compassion and care for her mother, as the camera pans over the bedroom and settles on the image of Ofelia asleep atop her mother, as if protecting her. The cinematography and staging of Ofelia’s and Carmen’s first night in their new residence adequately portrays their reversed relationship.

The symbolism of the mandrake root in multiple scenes in the film furthers themandrake1-201x300 Mothering Relationships in  Pan's Labyrinth maternal theme through Ofelia’s care of the root, and, by extension, her mother. Ofelia’s instructions in caring for the mandrake root entail placing it under her mother’s bed in fresh milk while “feeding” it two drops of blood every morning. The use of milk suggests maternalism.  In effect, the root becomes something of a child for Ofelia, and fortunately, her care for the root leads to her mother’s improved health. Ironically, the two drops of blood allude to the two drops of medicine the doctor ordered Carmen to take every day. In the scene where Ofelia first places the mandrake root, Ofelia goes over to her mother and gently strokes her head and belly. When Ofelia walks over to the table to carry out the instructions, the camera shows her in the background and the root in the foreground. Seconds later, the camera pans to the side, which places Ofelia on the left side of the screen and the mandrake root wiggling in the foreground. This cinematography allows for the viewers simultaneously to see Carmen in the background, writhing in her sleep, just behind the wiggling root. Mercedes’ lullaby now begins as a source of non-diegetic sound, providing a sense of closure to the scene as Ofelia has just calmed her distressed mother.

From her first scene in the film through the last, Mercedes stands as Ofelia’s true maternal figure. She first meets the Captain as Mercedes fetches Carmen’s luggage from the trunk of the car. After the Captain retreats back into the house, the camera swivels from pointing straight at Ofelia to show Mercedes in the background looking inquisitively and almost longingly at the child. During this long take, Mercedes keeps her eye on Ofelia as she runs away after the fairy. Ofelia’s childlike characteristics come into play as she drops her hat and lets curiosity get the better of her as she inches closer to the forest. Creepy orchestral music plays throughout this scene to signify danger when Ofelia enters the labyrinth. As Mercedes follows Ofelia, the camera moves up near her head and angles downward at Ofelia, indicating Mercedes’ higher position and authority. As she leads the child back toward the house, Mercedes wraps her arm around Ofelia and strokes her head. The green shawl that Mercedes wears also seems very motherly, especially because of its earthy color and hand-made appearance.

Another prominent scene which shows Mercedes’ maternal affection toward Ofelia occurs when she comforts the child regarding her mother’s illness. Emphatic blocking occurs here, as Mercedes hovers over Ofelia and eventually sits next to her on the bed while her watery eyes look up to the dominant female figure as she asks for a lullaby. In this scene, the lullaby is diegetic, as Mercedes hums it to Ofelia. The music symbolizes a mother singing to a child to sleep since the sound feels peaceful

The important final scene of the film also illustrates Mercedes’ love and care for Ofelia, almost as if she were her own daughter.

and comforting, quelling the young one’s fears while placing her mother “in another realm.” In Ofelia’ case, this  other realm signifies her fantasy world. Ofelia can only talk about the fairies and faun to Mercedes, which gives Ofelia the chance to indulge her childlike tendencies. When discussing the root and other aspects of her fantasy realm to Carmen, she often gets chided or even punished. Therefore, Mercedes singing a lullaby to quiet her parallels Ofelia taking care of her mother by telling her brother a story.

The important final scene of the film also illustrates Mercedes’ love and care for Ofelia, almost as if she were her own daughter. When Mercedes enters the labyrinth after both Ofelia’s and Captain Vidal’s deaths, she walks slowly toward Ofelia in a long take. As she leans over the child’s dead body, Mercedes seems to be humming her lullaby. Through continuity editing, this music turns into a non-diegetic lullaby as Ofelia wakes up in her dream world, bathed in light and warmth. This act of singing coincides with the previous lullaby scene, where Mercedes’ putting Ofelia to sleep acts as a transition into the fantasy realm. Meanwhile, in the labyrinth, pronounced lighting covers Ofelia’s face, emphasizing her innocence and paleness, as death has taken her. The blue tint also creates a cold, harsh atmosphere as Mercedes cries for Ofelia, and leans over her dead body while the camera circles upward, looking down into the labyrinth’s portal, suggestive of the void left in Mercedes’ heart. Ironically, both maternal figures, Ofelia and Mercedes, lose their “children,” Carmen and Ofelia respectively.

“Then I’ll never have one” is Ofelia’s reply to Mercedes’ statement that having a baby is complicated. Ironically, Ofelia’s maternal instincts toward her mother, and even the mandrake root, give her the experience of caring for a child. Mercedes’ tenderness and apparent yearning for a child grant her the ability to take care of the motherless Ofelia, both before and after Carmen’s death. Generally speaking, the mother allows the son or daughter to indulge in childlike behavior and to appreciate the fantastic and imaginative environment within one’s own mind. Mercedes tends to grant Ofelia such an environment, while caring for her more intensely than Ofelia’s biological mother. Ofelia also embraces this fantastic atmosphere when caring for her mother, through the stories she narrates to her brother. The maternal dynamic resonates both inside and outside Pan’s Labyrinth.

Bibliography

Pan’s Labyrinth. DVD. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. New York: New Line Productions, 2007.

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