“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love” (57).
- Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) ends with the death of the young protagonist Ofelia. However, the moment Ofelia dies, she also becomes Moanna, the immortal princess of the underworld. This scene calls back to an earlier moment in the film where Ofelia tells her unborn brother a story about a rose, surrounded by poisonous thorns, that grants immortality. But, none of the men accept the rose’s gift because they fear death. Unlike the men in her story, Ofelia embraces death and is rewarded. In a 2006 interview, writer and director Guillermo del Toro stated that his portrayal of death comes, in part, “from a Mexican sensibility” (del Toro “Pain”). To understand death positivity in El laberinto del fauno, it is worth exploring the history of this “Mexican sensibility.”
In Death and the Idea of Mexico, anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz explains that while the denial of death characterized the twentieth century in Europe and the United States, “during Mexico’s twentieth-century… a gay familiarity with death became a cornerstone of national identity” (20). Of course, this is not to imply that there is a uniform attitude towards death across all of Mexico, but rather, as Lomnitz says, that “there is deep cultural resonance in the move to use popular intimacy with death… as a metonymic sign of Mexican-ness itself” (27). It is a resonance that persists. In a 2014 interview, del Toro said, “when people ask me, what is so Mexican about your films, I say me. Because I’m not a guy that hides the monster: I show it to you with the absolute conviction that it exists. And that’s the way I think we view death. We don’t view it as the end of end all” (del Toro “The Book”). In El laberinto del fauno, death is not the end.
Not only does Ofelia live on as a ruler of the underworld, but her memory also survives on Earth. In the final shot of the movie, we return to the fig tree that Ofelia rescued. The last thing we see is the tree, once dead, blooming again. El laberinto del fauno shows, once again, that death and rebirth are really one and the same. Influenced by the persistent theme of intimacy with death in Mexican media, El laberinto del fauno is an important example of death positivity in film. Do not be afraid to be close to death, embrace it, because, in the end, what matters are the small traces we leave behind.
del Toro, Guillermo. “The Book of Life: what is it with Mexicans and death?” by Horatia Harrod, The Telegraph, 25 October 2014, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/11184727/Guillermo-del-Toro-interview-for-The-Book-of-Life-what-is-it-with-Mexicans-and-death.html.
del Toro, Guillermo. "Pain should not be sought - but it should never be avoided,” by Mark Kermode, The Guardian, 5 November 2006, www.theguardian.com/film/2006/nov/05/features.review1.
El laberinto del fauno [English: Pan’s Labyrinth]. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.
Lomnitz, Claudio. Death and the Idea of Mexico. Zone Books, 2005.
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Translated by Lysander Kemp, Grove Press Inc., 1961.