Most contemporary films are infected with some degree of symbol-erosion. A case in point is the Spanish language Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006), by the Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro, whose previous work includes Hellboy and Backbone of the Devil, films that draw on strange fiction, fantasy, and war themes. Pan’s Labyrinth is particularly interesting for its integration of fairy-tale, classical myth, horror, and political propaganda. Profoundly beautiful in parts, it is graphically brutal and subtly anti-Christian in its use of symbols. It won several international awards and three Academy awards and was listed in the top ten favorite films of many film critics.
The story is set in Spain, in 1944. The Spanish Civil War is over, but hidden in the mountains armed partisans (the Communists) hold onto shrinking islands of resistance. They are relentlessly being hunted down by the military forces of Franco’s regime. Throughout the film, the Communist partisans are all portrayed as kind, brave, self-sacrificing, warm-hearted men of honor and justice—without exception they are truly humane. The people loyal to the regime are banal, greedy, cruel, hypocritical cowards, torturers, or murderers—in short, gross caricatures of the political, religious, and social establishment.
The story opens in a car with the central character, an eleven-year-old girl named Ofelia, reading a fairy-tale. She and her pregnant mother are being driven to the mountain headquarters of Captain Vidal, her new stepfather, who is in charge of government troops in that region. The story alternates between Ofelia’s imaginary life, stimulated by the fairy-story she is reading, the military campaigns in the forest around the compound where she has come to live, and the miseries of her new family life.
The Captain is an embodiment of manhood gone wrong. He abuses his military authority by torturing and killing captured Communist partisans—these events filmed with lingering, almost slavish devotion to the horrible details. He is also an embodiment of fatherhood gone wrong. His manner is cold and authoritarian toward Ofelia and his wife. He is at times contemptuous of his wife and only values her because he desires a son to fulfill his high ideal of a manly line of soldiers (his own father was a General who fell in action). Their family life has no love, no tenderness, only “duty,” regulations, the law.
A fairy appears to Ofelia in her bedroom one night, at first manifesting itself as a large insect, and then transforming into a tiny human shape with wings. Led by the fairy, she explores a crumbling ancient stone labyrinth nearby in the forest. The fairy leads her down the stone steps of a well in the center of the labyrinth, and at the bottom she meets a giant faun. So hideous is his appearance, his large ram’s horns, his strange eyes, his deep unearthly voice, that he seems to be more a devil than a classical ancient woodlands faun.
He tells her that, like the girl in the fairy-tale she has been reading, she is the “daughter of the king of the underworld, ” and explains: “Your father had us open portals all over the world to allow your return.” The labyrinth is the last of them, and in order to be reunited with her “real father” (presumably the king of the underworld), she must complete three tasks.
In the first task, she must go down into the earth beneath a colossal ancient fig tree. The tree is dying because a monstrous toad lives under its roots. Ofelia must remove a golden key from inside its belly, and then the fig tree will flourish again. Crawling down a tunnel, through mud and offal amidst swarms of centipedes, she comes to the toad and confronts it. The toad, huge and greedy, gobbles down many centipedes. The camera focuses on the repulsive details with excruciating care. The girl gives the toad three stones to eat, and it vomits itself inside out, disgorging the key. Ofelia takes it and returns home. There a grand dinner is underway, even as many people in the region are desperately surviving only on government food coupons. Present are several invited guests, representing classes of the Spanish establishment, among them other military officers, wealthy, spoiled civilians, and a Catholic priest—all uttering banal clichés. The priest is especially unpleasant. While he heartily forks down his ample meal (like a giant toad) he says indifferently that it is a good thing the Captain and his troops are hunting down the resistance, since “God has already saved their souls; it doesn’t matter what happens to their bodies.” This is so blatant a violation of Catholic moral teaching, on two counts, that one wonders if the scriptwriter knows anything about the Faith. If he does know, and has decided to misrepresent it, then this scene is deliberate anti-Christian propaganda (not inconsistent with the social engineering policies of Spain’s new socialist government in the first decade of the twenty-first century). 
For the sake of a “new, clean Spain,” the Captain concludes, “If we need to kill all these vermin to settle it, then we’ll kill them all.”
Humiliated at dinner and suffering from a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia’s mother begins to bleed copiously, and is about to lose the baby in her womb. The faun appears in Ofelia’s bedroom and gives her a mandrake root, which she must put under her mother’s bed in a bowl of milk, to be fed daily with a drop of her own blood; this will cure her mother and save the baby, he promises. He then directs her to her second test.
She must go down into an underground chamber within the old building where she is living. The faun admonishes her not to eat anything she may find down there. She descends through a magic door in her bedroom wall, and into a chamber that resembles a monastery cloister. It leads to a large refectory room in the middle of which is a long banqueting table loaded with sumptuous foods of every kind. Seated at the head of the table is an immobile, eyeless, amorphous humanoid who appears to preside over the feast. On the plate before him are two eyeballs. Ofelia notices that murals on the walls depict this creature killing and eating children. In a corner of the room sits a heap of little shoes.
The viewer is left to decide for himself what the creature represents. Is it death itself, or perhaps abortion, infanticide, a nation’s children lost through war, childhood innocence devoured? Or is there something more being inferred?
As it sits motionless with hands extended before it, we see that the palms are wounded. Now Ofelia uses the golden key to open one of three little cupboard doors in the wall, each of which looks very much like a tabernacle. She removes from it a large ceremonial dagger, similar to one shown in a mural, used for killing a child. As she is preparing to leave the room, she absent-mindedly eats a grape from the table. Instantly, the monster awakes, pops the eyeballs into the wounds in its hands and raises his arms in the traditional “orans” position of prayer. Now able to see, it staggers toward Ofelia, intending to kill and eat her. It is distracted momentarily when it spots, with the eyes in its hands, two fairies, which it captures and eats (the horrible details lovingly recorded by the camera). Ofelia has just enough time to flee, and barely escapes back into her room.
Her mother is recovering, the root is now living under her bed, wiggling and making noises like a baby (when no one else but Ofelia is looking). The Captain discovers it and rages against the kinds of books the girl is reading, which he thinks is the cause of this superstitious behavior. He stomps off, leaving Ofelia alone with her mother. Hoping to put an end to the girl’s fantasies, she throws the root into the fire.
“Life is cruel,” she says. “Magic does not exist.” As the root writhes and screams in the flames, the mother falls to the floor and goes into labor. The baby is born, but the mother dies.
The faun informs Ofelia that her third test is to bring her newborn baby brother to the labyrinth. As she is leaving the house with him, the captain spots her and chases her with his pistol in hand, following her into the labyrinth but losing his way. There by the well Ofelia meets the faun who is holding the ceremonial dagger. He tells her that he needs only a drop of the baby’s blood, “the blood of an innocent,” in order to reopen the last portal to the underworld. She must hand him over, he says; this is her final test. Ofelia refuses to let the baby be hurt.
“Would you give up your throne for him?” he asks.
“Yes,” says the girl, “I would sacrifice it.”
With that, the Captain arrives but cannot see the faun, who is suddenly invisible. He seizes the baby and shoots the girl in the stomach. She falls to the ground and begins to die, her blood dripping into the well—the blood of an innocent.
A voice declares solemnly, “Arise, my daughter.” Ofelia wakes in a glorious underground palace. She is in full health, dressed as a princess, and reunited with her natural father and mother, who are now the king and queen of the underworld, applauded by crowds of cheering subjects who are welcoming her. The faun, who has facilitated it all, rejoices with them. Above-ground, the Communist partisans surround the Captain, take the baby, and shoot the Captain in the face. He falls dead. As Ofelia’s blood continues to drip into the well, she takes her final breath. End of film.
While the manipulation techniques and the skewing of symbols will be fairly obvious to an alert Christian, it will mainly be absorbed uncritically by most viewers, the highlights finding a place in conscious memory and the symbolic sub-text stored in the underground chambers of the subconscious. Few films are as maliciously sneaky as this one, but far more common is the oft-repeated message hammered into audiences’ minds that organized religion is the ultimate oppressor of man’s freedom.
A recent example is Jumper (2008), an American-made action adventure drama about people with the ability to transport themselves instantaneously to anywhere in the world. This is presented as an inherent power that manifests itself in a very small number of human beings. There is no reference to the source of their “gift,” and the viewer is left to presume that it is a natural one, with no supernatural reference, no rituals, no Gnostic elements. In this regard, the Jumpers are not unlike the superheroes Spiderman and Superman, both of whom enjoy their unusual powers due to accidents involving natural processes—genetic, if you will—both of whom use their powers to help the weak and vanquish those who prey upon the weak. They do it with the human virtues, combined with intelligence and enhanced physical faculties.
David Rice, the main character of Jumper, is not quite so noble as his forerunners. He begins his life of affluence with robbing banks by “jumping.” But of course he is a very modern “good guy” (a hybrid of hero and anti-hero), leaving I. O. U.’s at every bank he robs, though it is hard to imagine how he would ever amass enough money in a moral and legal way to repay his thefts. At one point it is implied that maybe he considers helping people in disaster situations, but this is never confirmed. An only child, he is one of the vast crowd of rootless children of our times. His mother abandoned the family when he was five years old; his father is an alcoholic. David leaves home at age fifteen and goes on to a life of robbery and mega-affluence, focusing on his main activities of global tourism and seduction of lovely ladies. Enter David’s long-lost girlfriend, whom he has loved since childhood. Many adventures follow, beginning with a romantic jump with her to exotic places, and a fornication, which has become de rigueur with modern good guys. Not graphically displayed, just presented as a given, supposedly the normal life of contemporary teens and twenties.
The plot revolves around the central theme of Jumpers versus Paladins, a mysterious group who seek out Jumpers in order to destroy them. At first we presume that they are trying to stop crime, but when another jumper is captured by Roland, the Paladin who is on our hero’s trail, we see their true nature.  The jumper is immobilized by advanced technology that zaps him with electrical charges and trusses him with cables to an ancient tree. When the jumper asks his captor why he is doing this, Roland replies in tones of disgust and hatred:
“Because you are an abomination! Only God should have the power to be at all places at all times.” He then kills the jumper with a large knife.
The plot continues with David’s several narrow escapes, and his teaming up with another jumper, a renegade named Griffin who tracks down and kills Paladins. At one point in the film, Griffin explains to David: “Paladins have been killing Jumpers for years, way back since medieval times. They’re fanatics, religious nuts. The Inquisition, witch-hunts—that was them.”
In the final scene of the film, David finally tracks down his long-lost mother, and surprises her in her home, a large sterile mansion. She explains that she left him when he was a little boy when she saw him make his first jump and knew that she could not bring herself to kill him. Yes, Mom is a Paladin! With the last vestige of motherhood in her cold fanatical heart, she gives him a hug and sends him off into the world with the caution that she is only giving him a short head-start. Thanks, Mom! End of film.
Though full of dazzling special effects, Jumper is, on the whole, predictable and boring. The message has been delivered, “jumped” into our brains, our subconscious, reinforcing the countless similar messages in modern film and fiction, which tell us ad nauseam that organized religion’s intolerance (and prejudices against the paranormal) are the real source of unhappiness in the world.
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 In a November 17, 2006, interview with The Guardian, Del Toro describes his Pan’s Labyrinth as “a truly profane film, a layman’s riff on Catholic dogma.”
 The Song of Roland is the oldest surviving work of French literature, an epic poem about the great medieval ideal of knighthood, Roland, captain of the Paladins, who supported Charlemagne and were slaughtered to a man in an eighth-century battle. Jumper reverses the traditional “icon” of the virtuous hero (or heroic virtue).