“If you expect to get laid after this screening,” Guillermo del Toro told the midnight (actually, closer to 1 a.m.) audience at the AFI FEST Los Angeles 2007 premiere of Pan’s Labyrinth, “it ain’t gonna happen.”
Indeed, del Toro’s “adult fairytale” is hardly the sort of fable that would induce either sexual or romantic yearnings. The story of a young girl who attempts to escape the brutal repression of General Francisco Franco’s Spain by creating her own dark fantasy world, Pan’s Labyrinth is movie magic at its most visceral. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]
Set in 1944 Spain, where isolated groups of rebels were still fighting Franco’s totalitarian right-wing government, Pan’s Labyrinth starts with a prologue about a princess from an underground kingdom “where there are neither lies nor pain.” Though lost to the world above, the soul of said princess will one day return to her rightful throne.
Above ground, the pregnant Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her 11-year-old daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrive at a military outpost led by Carmen’s new husband, Capt. Vidal (Sergi López), whose sole aims in life are to sire a male child and to perish in the battlefield – “the only decent way to die.” In addition to being a rather poor husband and stepfather, the emotionally challenged military man turns out to be a murderous psychopath who’ll mercilessly destroy whoever dares to disobey his orders.
In the meantime, a fairy takes Ofelia to a maze leading to an underground stairwell. There, she meets a deep-voiced – though quite fey – faun (Doug Jones, dubbed into Spanish), who tells her that she is the underground kingdom’s long-lost princess.
Ofelia, however, can’t simply put a tiara on her head and ascend the throne. In order for her to return to the kingdom and attain immortality, the faun must “make sure her essence has remained intact.” Therefore, the girl must follow his instructions so she can pass three difficult tests before the next full moon: getting a key out of the entrails of a giant toad; stealing a dagger from the blind Pale Man (also Doug Jones); and using said dagger to spill the blood of an innocent.
Needless to say, del Toro’s fantasy world has nothing to do with Walt Disney’s whitewashed version of old European fairy tales. Del Toro, after all, is the director of fare such as Chronos, Hellboy, and The Devil’s Backbone. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a shock that in Pan’s Labyrinth devilish-looking fairies die gruesome deaths, while the faun comes across as a figure that inspires as much fear as awe.
Setting aside all the heavy symbolism – with shades of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – that could be interpreted in myriad ways, del Toro said at the AFI FEST screening that Pan’s Labyrinth is a fable “about choice and disobedience, when we stop being what everybody else wants you to be.” The film is supposed to remind us that “we should not obey. That imagination should not comply.”
Del Toro’s message reminded me of Luis Buñuel’s anti-conformism dark comedy The Exterminating Angel (1962), in which the bourgeoisie and the pious become prisoners of their own socio-religious dogma. (Perhaps as a nod to Buñuel, del Toro doesn’t hesitate to put down the Catholic Church. At one point, a priest remarks that “God already saved [the rebels’] souls; what happens to their bodies matters not to him.”)
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Capt. Vidal is an esteemed member of the establishment who also happens to be a prisoner of his own delusions of righteousness; one who resents those who dare to exercise freedom of thought. One of Capt. Vidal’s non-conformist victims is a doctor (Álex Angulo) caring for the increasingly frail Carmen. The captain is outraged when he finds out that the doctor has performed a mercy killing on a captured guerilla member, whom he wanted revived for one more torture session.
“You could have obeyed me!”
“But captain, to obey – just like that – for obedience’s sake … without questioning … That’s something only people like you do.”
Now, I do agree that blind allegiance to authority figures – be they political, social, or cultural-religious – reduces human beings to lemmings (with my heartfelt apologies to lemmings everywhere). That said, all things being equal we should obey rules that are intended to preserve our own and others’ well-being and safety.
Go have intercourse with a stranger without wearing a condom, for instance. Or drive way above the speed limit without wearing a seat belt. Or head down to the snoozing Pale Man’s lair and take a bite of a forbidden fruit. True, in the first two examples nothing may happen to you (or to others), but in the third one you can bet your gluttonous ass that the blind monster will wake up, put his eyes in his hands (perhaps inspired by a Sonic Youth album cover), munch on your assistant fairies, and try to have you for dessert (inspired by Francisco Goya’s “Saturn”). All that while the hourglass is emptying and the door to safety is about to close for good.
Del Toro has said that the Pale Man represents the Catholic Church or any institution – religious or otherwise, I assume – that demands blind obedience. Yet, in that instance the girl’s disobedience to the faun’s commands leads to death and mayhem both below and above ground.
Del Toro’s screenplay never deals with the incongruity between the film’s pro-disobedience message and Ofelia’s stupidly – and deadly – disobedient behavior at the Pale Man’s dinner table. True, the irate faun berates the girl for her recklessness: “Your spirit will stay forever among humans. You’ll live among them, you’ll get old like them, you’ll die like them and your memory of us will fade. And we’ll vanish along with it!” Even so, del Toro clearly wants us to sympathize with her.
At the film’s end, disobedience pays – even if in a twisted manner. That’s when Ofelia, unlike Abraham in the Bible, refuses to shed the blood of an innocent.
“You would give up your sacred rights for this brat?” the angry faun inquires.
Eventually, however, her own innocent blood is spilled. Whether that leads to oblivion or to her return to her underground kingdom is the viewer’s decision; at that moment, del Toro purposefully blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Either way, Ofelia will suffer no more.
The girl’s initial act of disobedience leads to disaster. Her final one, on the other hand, leads to salvation.
So, should one disobey or not?
Even though I found that inconsistency seriously detrimental to the film – along with the fact that the real-life guerrilla members are portrayed as squeaky-clean heroes – the many positive aspects of Pan’s Labyrinth more than compensate for its failings.
Del Toro handles both the action and the drama with a sure hand – the tragic-hopeful finale is particularly haunting – while his screenplay provides numerous situations that seamlessly interweave wonderment and horror. Still, much of the film’s success can be attributed to the director’s collaborators both in front or behind the camera. Those range from production designer Eugenio Caballero and editor Bernat Vilaplana to make-up artists David Martí, Montse Ribé, José Quetglás, and Arjen Tuiten, and costume designers Lala Huete and Rocío Redondo.
Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography, even if a tad too dark, enhances the atmosphere of both Fascist Spain’s drab reality and Ofelia’s morbid imagination, while Javier Navarrete’s music provides the appropriate – at times tense, at times melancholy – accompaniment to the action. Compared to Hollywood spectacles, the film’s visual effects are simple but no less effective.
The performers, for their part, are mostly excellent. Ariadna Gil is fully believable as the long-suffering pregnant wife (“You’re getting older, soon you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. Magic doesn’t exist. Not for you, me or anyone else”); Maribel Verdú exudes strength as the captain’s chief housekeeper who no longer believes in fairies but who does believe in assisting her rebel brother fight Franco’s Fascists; while Doug Jones creates an amusingly creepy faun that kept this viewer guessing throughout if he was friend or foe.
But ultimately, on screen Pan’s Labyrinth belongs to Sergi López, whose Military Man is the epitome of the automaton that thrives in social systems demanding total obedience. Whether smashing the face of a handsome young peasant or sewing together his own sliced cheek (which makes him look like Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs), López’s Capt. Vidal is also the movie villain par excellence. He is evil beyond belief – and with charisma to match. And like most, if not all, great movie villains, the captain is a tragic figure as well. No matter how powerful he believes himself to be, Capt. Vidal, as mentioned earlier in this review, is actually a prisoner of his own mental rigidity. Like Ofelia, only death can liberate him from the prison of the world.
López’s performance brings all that to the fore. As was the case with his human-organ trafficker in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, no matter how vile his character’s deeds, I had my eyes glued on the actor whenever he was on screen – and I sorely missed him whenever he wasn’t around.
At the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, Capt. Vidal may have gotten his comeuppance at the hands of the guerrillas, but others like him turned out to be the real victors of that war. Perhaps that’s why for Ofelia to find happiness, whether real or delusional, she has to leave the world that helped create Franco’s Spain. Those left behind – the housekeeper, her brother, his comrades in arms – were all doomed. Franco’s forces, abetted by the country’s Catholic Church, would remain in power for another three decades.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro presents a world in which violent, fearsome, stifling reality coexists with a realm that, though perhaps equally violent and fearsome, is anything but stifling. And its dangers notwithstanding – unlike those of the “real” world out there – Ofelia’s fantastic realm, accessible through a mere chalk drawing on a wall, is filled with hope.
Now, even though I felt that del Toro’s pro-rebellion message got somewhat muddled, I must reiterate that I do agree with his basic premise. Considering the horrors that continue to take place around the globe because human beings are all too glad to let others tell them what to think and what to do, the lessons found in Pan’s Labyrinth remain as valid today as during the time of Franco’s right-wing dictatorship.
In other words, if you don’t question authority, if you don’t think for yourself, if you don’t use your imaginative powers, if you don’t follow your own path to the truth, you are worse than dead. You’re nothing.
Pan’s Labyrinth / El laberinto del fauno (2006)
Direction & Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro.
Cast: Ivana Baquero. Sergi López. Maribel Verdú. Doug Jones. Ariadna Gil. Álex Angulo. Manolo Solo.