by Douglas Messerli
Guillermo del Toro (writer and director) El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth)/ released December 2006. I saw the movie on January 14, 2007
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) consists of two seemingly unconnected tales, the first of a young girl, Ofelia (played with a sort of wise innocence by Ivana Baquero), who, as her mother, Carmen, suggests, is perhaps a bit old for the fantastical romances with which she is obsessed and which dominate her imagination whenever she has a spare moment to employ it. In fact, except for occasionally helping her pregnant mother, who suffers the pains of imminent childbirth, Ofelia is very much left alone to her own thoughts. Her mother has only recently remarried, and her new stepfather Vidal (Sergi López)—at the center of the second, realist story—is a frighteningly cruel Captain stationed at a remote forest outpost of Generalísimo Franco’s repressive fascist army in 1944 Spain. Vidal, we soon discover, is a man as brutal as the government he supports. When his men discover a peasant father and son near their base, the Captain drives a pick through the eyes of the younger man and shoots them both before finishing the inventory of their satchel wherein lies the evidence that supports their claim that they are simply hunters: a dead rabbit.
In the fairytale logic of del Toro’s film, the old mill house, where Ofelia and her mother have come from the city to live with Vidal, is located not only in a mountainous forest but near the remains of an ancient labyrinth leading to what the film’s narrator describes as an ancient kingdom where the king and queen await the return of the princess Moanna, who abandoned it.
Hardly has the young girl had a chance to settle into this creaking house of horrors before she has entered the forbidden labyrinth, led by a fairy (who appears to the adults as a praying mantis), to encounter a decaying faun, who claims she is the lost princess who must undergo three tests to prove that she has not become human.
If the first two fantastical challenges seem nearly impossible for the young child to accomplish—that she crawl into the center of a giant rotting tree to reclaim a golden key from the innards of a gargantuan frog, and that she cross a grand banquet hall filled with food she is warned not to touch in order to retrieve a hidden dagger—the challenges of the adults around her are far more dangerous. Vidal’s head servant Mercedes and his house doctor are in league with the nearby rebels; when several men of the guerrilla band are killed and one is captured, accordingly, the two within Vidal’s house suffer the terrors of seeing their friends tortured and destroyed and, potentially, their own identities revealed.
While Vidal cruelly tortures his adversaries, he himself is psychologically tortured by the heroism of his own father, who bequeathed him a watch dashed to the ground to mark his passing.* Throughout this film, stocked with various modernist symbols—keys, clocks, food, books, animals, etc.—the maternal figures—Mercedes and Carmen—predictably represent love and the nurturing forces of life, while the paternal figures demand absolute obedience in a mad rush into chaos. Vidal diffidently crushes those around him, while obsessed with his own mortality. Despite the shattered face of his father’s watch, Vidal has returned it to working order and constantly checks to see if it is still running, as if the watch represented the beat of his own heart. The birth of his son appears to be his only chance to preserve his lineage. Carmen, Ofelia’s mother, is seen less by Vidal as a loving companion, accordingly, than as the bearer of his heir, the continuance of his blood. If there is a choice of the survival of the child, he explains to the doctor, the mother’s life is secondary.
Like many children held in captivity in both real life and in fairy tales, Ofelia is an intent observer of both worlds, sometimes interfusing them—she imagines she is told to save her mother by placing a mandrake root, soaked in milk and fed with blood, beneath the bed, a magical remedy that appears to have positive results—but also able to separate them in comprehending the strange new world into which she has been cast. If Vidal is blind to Mercedes’s traitorous acts, Ofelia recognizes them immediately, keeping them secret in order to protect her new friend, who, upon the death of Carmen, becomes her surrogate mother.
Meanwhile, Ofelia has evidently forfeited her possibility of eternal sal-vation by disobeying the faun, eating two grapes from the banquet table even as she escapes the ogre with eyes implanted in his hands—a figure representing Chronos or Saturn, who, associated throughout Greek mythology as the keeper of time, who devoured his own children. Just as Ofelia has been cast out of the world she has known with her real father and beloved mother, she is now told by the figures of her fantastical dreams that she will never be able to return to the magical kingdom she was to have inherited.
Had del Toro brought the film to a close at this point, it still might have been a powerful legend about a young girl having to come to terms with the unjust and cruel world around her. Yet as Vidal uncovers the treachery of the doctor—whom he summarily shoots—and Mercedes—whom he is about to torture—a seeming miracle redeems the “real” world: Mercedes escapes, to be saved by her partisan friends.
So too is Ofelia given another chance in her fantasy. She must take her baby brother to the entrance of the underworld of Pan’s labyrinth. Doctoring her stepfather’s drink with drugs, she escapes with the baby at the very moment that the guerrillas attack the fascist outpost. But her father, like all monsters, relentlessly chases after, and she is suddenly forced to confront both worlds—the real and the fantastical —side by side. Pan demands the blood of an innocent, commanding the baby be handed over. The girl refuses, and is forced to give it up to its father, who calmly takes the child into his embrace before shooting and killing his stepdaughter. As the blood drips from her dead body down into the well of the ancient world, it is clear that an innocent has been sacrificed after all.
The fantastical kingdom Ofelia now enters, where her “loving parents” sit on the impossibly high towers representing their potency, suddenly reveals that Ofelia’s fantastical world and the realist construction of Vidal are simply mirror images of each other, and as such they create an allegorical relationship for the viewer of the film. Both worlds demand the same thing: the blood of innocents, the meaningless death of individuals who deny those in power.
As some postmodern writers and theorists have long argued—I am particularly thinking here of Spanish-language writers such as Cuban novelists Severo Sarduy and José Lezama Lima, writers who del Toro may have encountered—the fantastical fictions of the magical realists offer few alternatives in their structures from the paternalistic social fantasies of realists earlier in the 20th century, who claimed their work represented the “truth.” In both worlds there is no escape for those who suffer its indignities; there is no way out.
Whether del Toro intended his mirror-like structure to be a warning or not, he has brilliantly shown us that neither the realist-conceived nor fantastical visions of the world can offer a livable space. Yet we feel in Pan’s Labyrinth nonetheless a sense of tragic resolution, for both Ofelia and Mercedes, despite impossible odds, have found a way to deny the horrific visions of the world by simply saying “no.” As the doctor replies when Vidal claims he simply could have obeyed him, “But captain, obey for obey’s sake... That’s something only people like you do.” Those who are truly free, who are not puppets to some cause, can speak up, deny both the real and its implicit fantasies.
Ofelia refuses to give Pan her brother; taking the child from Vidal’s hands before her friends shoot him, Mercedes vengefully announces to the captain that the child will be free of his heritage, that she shall never speak Vidal’s name to his son.
Friends Wendy Walker and Tom La Farge pointed out to me, after reading this essay, that at Vidal’s banquet table one of the guests notes that the Captain’s father was a hero in the war in Morocco. That war, the Rif war or the War of Melilla (1919-1926), was a disaster and embarrassment for Spain, as the Berbers massacred 15,000 Spanish soldiers. The Spanish won only when the French joined them in battle. Francisco Franco distinguished himself in that war, however, and his involvement in the struggles helped to bring him to power.
Los Angeles, January 15, 2007