Pan’s Labyrinth/El Laberinto del Fauno (2006) *****
I attended public school in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County from September of 1979 until June of 1992, and in all that time, I can remember only three occasions on which one of my teachers mentioned the Spanish Civil War. Tenth-grade world history and eleventh-grade US history both treated it solely as an opening act for World War II; in the former, Mr. Fischhaber touched briefly on Nazi Germany using its intervention on the side of Francisco Franco’s fascist Falange Española as a field test for the equipment and tactics that would come closer than most people would like to think about to putting all of Continental Europe under Hitler’s effective dominion, while the textbook for the latter class mumbled something about “Lincoln Brigades” before plowing ahead toward Pearl Harbor. The third mention of the war came in an art class, when it was cited as the inspiration for Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Assuming that my educational experience is more or less typical for Americans these days, a bit of historical background seems warranted before we begin talking at any length about Pan’s Labyrinth, which has every bit as much to do with that largely ignored conflict as the aforementioned Picasso canvas.
The period in between the World Wars was as politically tumultuous for Spain as it was for virtually everybody else. King Alfonso XIII officially ruled as a constitutional monarch from 1887 to 1931, but the king was little more than a figurehead from 1923 on. The real power during the concluding years of Alfonso’s reign was in the hands of Miguel Primo de Rivera, Marques of Estella and commander of the Spanish Army, whose military coup overthrew Spain’s parliament on a purported anti-corruption basis. The king gave Primo de Rivera his retrospective blessing, largely in the hope of containing the political forces that had been aligning against the crown during the sharp economic downturn that hit all of Europe as the hangover of World War I. Primo de Rivera initially enjoyed some success in turning Spain’s economy around, but when worldwide depression struck again in 1930, the dictator lost the support not only of the king, but of the Army’s officer corps as well. He retired from office more or less peaceably, but even so, the military government was so thoroughly discredited that its fall brought Alfonso XIII down with it.
What happened next bears a remarkable resemblance to the better-known events that transpired in Germany between the wars, albeit on a more compressed schedule. The republic that succeeded the old monarchy very rapidly fell under the sway of a liberal-socialist coalition, which set itself vigorously to dismantling whatever remained of the prewar social and political order in Spain. A new constitution was promulgated in 1931, incorporating strong guarantees for the freedoms of speech and association, stripping the nobility of their special legal status, extending civil rights for women (including both suffrage and the right of divorce), and sharply curtailing the power of the Catholic Church. Naturally, none of that sat well with the right wing, and in 1933, a confederation of conservative parties called CEDA (the Spanish Coalition for the Autonomous Right) captured a plurality of the seats in the legislature with a platform consisting of roughly equal parts Old Time Religion and rabid red-baiting. The CEDA government’s policies provoked a general strike in Asturias, however, combined with anarchist and socialist uprisings there and in Catalonia, and the bloody crackdown that brought the rebellion to an end— orchestrated by a then-little known general named Francisco Franco— helped cause a hard leftward swing of the political pendulum in time for the elections of 1936. Centrism effectively ceased to exist as a political force in Spain, and as liberals became increasingly radicalized toward socialism and anarchism, the monarchy-oriented conservative parties started to be overshadowed by the Spanish and Traditionalist Phalanx of the Committees for National Syndicalist Offensive, an equally radical right-wing organization inspired by the Italian Fascists. At first, the Falange Española was led by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (son of the Primo de Rivera who had controlled Spain for most of the 20’s), but when he was arrested on conspiracy charges in July of 1936, the baton was passed to the Butcher of Asturias, Francisco Franco. Less than two weeks later, Franco’s African Army was on the move from Morocco to the Spanish mainland, and the country was embroiled in civil war.
Civil wars, as we all know, tend to be the most uncivil conflicts of all, and this one was not made any gentler by the intervention of practically everybody with a stake in the great fascist-communist rivalry that had been increasingly polarizing Europe since the similarly horrendous Russian Civil War in 1919. The Falangist insurgents were joined by a monarchist militia called the Requetes (roughly, the Irregulars), and this Nationalist rebel alliance received logistical and military support from the three states already controlled by fascist parties in 1936: Germany, Italy, and Portugal. The legitimate government was defended primarily by communist, socialist, and— rather paradoxically— anarchist parties, together with the largest and most politically attuned of Spain’s trade and labor unions; the Republican side’s foreign backers were the Soviet Union, Mexico, and a loosely organized international volunteer army recruited almost literally worldwide. (The United States, typical of its people’s conflicted attitudes toward Europe’s escalating political strife during this era, in effect supported both sides. More than 3000 Americans fought for the Republic in the Lincoln and Washington battalions of the Fifteenth International Brigade, while corporations like Texaco, General Motors, and Firestone kept the far-right rebels profitably stocked with fuel, vehicles, and machine tools.) Both sides resorted readily to terror tactics, and murdered civilians on an epic scale. Inevitably, there is little agreement on the totals even to this day, but estimates range from 38,000 to 55,000 for Nationalist sympathizers killed by Republicans, and from 50,000 to 200,000 for Republican sympathizers killed by Nationalists. The fascists’ significantly higher score reflects the period after the official end of hostilities in 1939, for pockets of resistance remained even as late as the 1960’s. There was also a certain amount of overlap between the Spanish resistance to Franco after the Nationalist victory and the French resistance to both Nazi occupation and the collaborationist Vichy government, for the Spanish guerillas often found it advantageous to operate out of havens across the border in the French Pyrenees. In October of 1944, several thousand of these guerillas-in-exile took advantage of the German withdrawal from southern France to stage a coordinated and very well-armed invasion of their homeland through the Aran Valley in Catalonia. The invasion was repelled in just ten days, but even that was a pretty impressive showing for the resistance, given that they were ultimately outnumbered by something like twenty to one. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944, during what I take to be the lead-up to those ten days, telling the story of an imaginative child’s response to the monstrous events in which she and her mother are caught up.
The child’s name is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, from Werewolf Hunter: The Legend of Romasanta and Fragile: A Ghost Story). Her father, a tailor by trade, died during the Civil War, and her mother, Carmen (The Absent’s Ariadna Gil), has remarried to an army officer whose uniforms the dead man used to mend. Carmen is now about eight and a half months pregnant with her second husband’s child (universally assumed to be a son, although who knows on what basis given 1944 obstetrics technology), and despite the worrisomely heavy toll the pregnancy seems to be taking on her health, she and Ofelia are on their way to the disused mill in the far north from which Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) and his men conduct their operations against the resistance. Let the record show that Ofelia hates this state of affairs— the move to the country, the abstract concept of her mother remarrying, the specific man whom she picked to be her new husband, all of it. And when Carmen, Ofelia, and their military escort arrive at the mill, you won’t have to spend much time observing Captain Vidal before you start agreeing with the little girl. It’s bad enough that he’s exactly the sort of uptight, emotionally withdrawn, and reflexively disapproving man whom every child would dread having as a stepfather, but he’s also personally responsible for a fair number of those 50,000 to 200,000 slayings of civilians I mentioned a while back. In point of fact, it’s not completely out of the question that Ofelia’s father is one of the men whose blood Vidal has on his hands, although that’s never made anything like explicit. Ofelia’s intense interest in fairy tales may predispose her to think in terms of wicked stepparents anyway, but in this particular case, the Brothers Grimm would have been right on the money.
The girl’s love of magic and make-believe, meanwhile, receives plenty of stimulation from the woods around the mill. They’re full of ancient, apparently Celtic ruins and artifacts, the most impressive of which is a badly decayed stone maze surrounding a deep pit with a distinctly sacred-looking chamber at the bottom of it. Mercedes (The Mudboy’s Mirabel Verdu), the captain’s housekeeper, tells Ofelia that the labyrinth has always been there, and that nobody really knows who built it— which is pretty much the same as saying that it’s the last remaining vestige of an extinct elven kingdom, so far as Ofelia is concerned. Ofelia also becomes convinced that she has made contact with a fairy when she replaces a small, broken-off piece of a monument outside the labyrinth, and a very big, very strange stick insect clambers out of the statue’s mouth. The thing is, she might— just maybe— be right about that, too. To begin with, the insect seems to take a most un-bug-like interest in Ofelia, following her all over the mill and its grounds. Then one night, it comes to her while she’s trying (seemingly without a lot of success) to sleep, and transforms its appearance into something more like what one would expect of a fairy. The tiny creature then leads Ofelia into the heart of the labyrinth, where it introduces her to a faun (Hellboy’s Doug Jones) who speaks to her in an antique form of Spanish that reinforces the impression of immense age already conveyed by the moss growing all over his wooden body. The faun addresses Ofelia not by her accustomed name, but as the Princess Moanna, immortal daughter of the king of the underworld. He tells her that the pit at center of the labyrinth is a gateway to her real father’s domain, but that she will be permitted to enter it only if she passes three tests to prove that she has not been permanently corrupted by the mortal world where she has spent her present incarnation’s whole life. Exactly what those tests will be is a matter for another time. For now, the faun merely gives Ofelia a pouch containing three small stones and a book full of blank pages, which he calls The Book of the Crossroads. If she keeps the book hidden, and consults it only when she is completely alone, its text and illustrations will appear and reveal her destiny.
Okay— so obviously there’s plenty of reason to dismiss the whole business of fauns and fairies and ancient kingdoms as a combination of dreams and fantasies on Ofelia’s part. The fairy/stick insect showed up in the middle of the night, and while the girl was portrayed as being awake at the time, we were clearly in unreliable protagonist mode here to begin with. Nobody else saw the faun, and more importantly, nobody saw Ofelia set off on her supposed nocturnal excursion— not the servants, not the soldiers standing night watch outside the mill, not even Carmen, whose bed Ofelia had been sharing. And for that matter, nobody sees Ofelia consult The Book of the Crossroads the next morning, so even the one theoretically tangible trace of her meeting with the faun doesn’t really prove much of anything. Furthermore, Ofelia has ample cause to desire an escape from reality when reality includes things like her mother looking increasingly unlikely to surviving giving birth, and her stepfather summarily executing peasants for taking an insufficiently servile tone while he questions them about what they were up to out in the forest. Even Ofelia’s relationship with the kind and indulgent Mercedes generates as much anxiety as solace, for the housekeeper’s brother, Pedro (Roger Casamajor), is the leader of the local anti-fascist partisans, and Ofelia has seen enough to recognize that Mercedes and Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo, from Mutant Action and The Day of the Beast) are helping “the men in the woods,” even if she doesn’t understand what beyond individual lives is at stake in the contest between the peasant militants and Captain Vidal. Consequently, we can think as much or as little of it as we want when Ofelia gets to work on her three tests: to use the rocks the faun gave her to poison the giant toad that has been killing the oldest and most magical tree in the forest by burrowing under its roots, and to retrieve a golden key from its stomach after it’s dead; to sneak into the lair of a faceless, child-eating ogre and use that key to unlock whichever of the three compartments in the ogre’s banquet hall contains an enchanted dagger; and to deliver her newborn brother to the faun in the center of the labyrinth, for a purpose on which the woodland spirit remains menacingly tight-lipped. But even if we refuse to credit the reality of the girl’s fantastic adventures at all, there’s no denying the emerging hints of parallels between Ofelia’s “imaginary” world and the “real” world of soldiers and insurgents. In fact, as matters progress toward their horribly tragic conclusion, it looks increasingly like the two planes of Ofelia’s existence are directly influencing each other— the mundane world showing hints of magic below the surface, even as the fantasy world becomes darker and more frightening.
The Spanish Civil War did not have a happy ending, and neither does Pan’s Labyrinth. If you’re looking for a whimsical but melancholy adventure of the imagination that the whole family can enjoy, then put Pan’s Labyrinth back on the shelf at once and run— do not walk— in the opposite direction. Try Bridge to Terabithia instead. If, however, you would prefer a heart-rending meditation on human viciousness, as seen through the eyes of someone who lacks the sophistication to believe the lies we tell ourselves to make that viciousness seem noble or at least forgivable, then writer/director Guillermo del Toro has what you’re looking for. The strange thing about Pan’s Labyrinth is that in the end, it’s nowhere near as hopeless as that makes it sound, although I certainly think the description is accurate, as far as it goes. Like a lot of the fairy tales from which it derives its fantasy elements, this movie is very much concerned with the process whereby a seemingly powerless person discovers unsuspected reserves of strength and courage. The imaginary monsters Ofelia faces in her trials are practice for the inevitable confrontation with the real monster her mother has married (significantly, the giant toad under the ancient tree must be outwitted, while overcoming the ogre in the banquet hall is a matter of stealth and speedy escape— both techniques that a child might credibly apply in dealing with Captain Vidal), while the true object of the third test is in essence to demonstrate Ofelia’s conscious rejection of her stepfather’s bloodthirsty authoritarianism. The latter ends up being a variation on the story of Abraham and Isaac, only in del Toro’s telling, the right answer is the really right one— to refuse to shed innocent blood, no matter who commands it, and no matter how much one might want the supposed benefits to be gained from shedding it. From a strictly real-world perspective, Ofelia’s fantasy adventures are preparing her for a moral victory rather than a practical one, but as we know looking back from the 21st century, moral victories were the only ones readily available to humane-minded people in fascist Spain.
You will notice, however, that Ofelia’s “training” becomes a lot more practical if we accept that she really is the Princess Moanna, that there really are fauns and fairies, and that the labyrinth really does lead to an enchanted parallel world that only people who retain their childish belief in magic may access. If Ofelia is indeed a fairy princess, destined one day to govern a magical kingdom (or at least to assist in governing it— the mechanics of succession among eternal royalty would almost have to be a bit less clear-cut than the way we mortals handle it), then her capacity for empathy and her susceptibility to the kind of instrumental thinking that makes tyrants out of men like Vidal is a matter of genuine concern. And an attentive examination of Pan’s Labyrinth’s final act suggests that there may be more truth in Ofelia’s fantasies than Mercedes and her mother are inclined to grant. Del Toro is sneaky enough to refrain from showing anything that would make the unreal real unambiguously, but as the film comes nearer to its conclusion, situations begin accumulating that are easiest to explain if we extend the magic full faith and credit. The Book of the Crossroads, to start with, seems able to predict events in the real world just as effectively as it guides Ofelia through her tripartite quest (albeit in considerably less detail), as when it tips her off to her mother’s life-threatening near-miscarriage a moment before it happens. Carmen’s health takes a major upturn— one which Dr. Ferreiro is powerless to explain— immediately after the faun gives Ofelia a mandrake root and instructs her to feed it two drops of blood per day after placing it under the ailing woman’s bed in a bowl of milk. Furthermore, Carmen has a sudden and catastrophic relapse the second Vidal discovers Ofelia’s charm, and throws the root into the fire. Finally, and perhaps decisively, it’s difficult to imagine how Ofelia defeats both the locked door and the guards posted outside her room at the climax unless the chalk she got from the faun to open up a portal to the ogre’s banquet hall is genuinely capable of drawing doorways in walls, floors, and ceilings. These sidelong “confirmations” of the reality of magic are one of my favorite things about Pan’s Labyrinth, because they’re so legitimately open to interpretation.
Another thing I love about Pan’s Labyrinth is the way it employs the darkness of authentic fairy tales not merely as a stylistic sensibility, but as a potent tool in service of its central themes. Stories of that type almost inevitably have a didactic subtext to them, and not just in the crude moral-lesson sense embraced by Victorian compilers and editors. Most of them place their young protagonists (whether adolescents or actual children) in high-stakes situations governed by seemingly arbitrary and unfair rules laid down by powerful beings who are at best disinclined to explain their reasons and at worst apt to take violent offense at having their dictates questioned. They exhibit a nearly obsessive focus on evil, incompetent, or otherwise untrustworthy parental figures, and even when there are no wicked stepmothers or cowardly, feckless fathers to be seen, their villains are those who prey on the young and powerless in preference to any other victims. Fairy tales, in short, can be read as a child’s guide to navigating the menacing and incomprehensible adult world from a position of weakness until such time as he or she is ready to join it from a position of relative strength. The scenario at the outset of Pan’s Labyrinth, meanwhile, perfectly parallels a classic fairy tale setup— vulnerable but resourceful child, loving but impotent parent, cruel and domineering stepparent— and the danger in which Carmen’s ill-considered remarriage eventually places Ofelia is every bit as great as anything faced by Snow White or Hansel and Gretel. Consequently, the film’s fantastic and realistic aspects reinforce each other even before the two plotlines noticeably begin to overlap and blend.
Pan’s Labyrinth may be pretty much one great idea after another to begin with, but the real key to its success is Guillermo del Toro’s scrupulous attention to detail. This movie is so densely constructed that it’s practically impossible to absorb all of its virtues in a single sitting. The labyrinth and the artifacts associated with it are both strange enough to be believable as the bridgehead of an alternate reality and sufficiently grounded in genuine ancient design motifs to suggest something you might plausibly find at a pre-Roman site tucked away in the woods on the slopes of the Pyrenees. The faun (a masterpiece of creature-costume acting and special effects technique, in which foam latex and puppet elements get just enough digital image-tweaking to perfect the illusion) grows subtly younger and more vigorous in relation to Ofelia’s commitment to the world he represents, and the addition of wood-grained face and bark-clad hands to the expected goat-man gestalt implies that he personifies the totality of the forest instead of merely its wildlife. The ogre is a straight-up walking nightmare, with no facial features save two gaping nostrils and a slavering mouth, and detachable eyes in the palms of its hands. Del Toro recruited exactly the right actors, despite the fact that he cast every one of them except for Doug Jones about as drastically against type as possible: noted Spanish comic performers as the diabolical fascist captain and the quietly noble doctor, a Mexican professional sex object as the frumpy and matronly Mercedes, and so forth. As for Jones, his turns as both the faun and the ogre (although that isn’t apparent until the closing credits, and probably had more to do with maximizing the return on del Toro’s investment in Jones’s monster-suit experience than anything else) provide fuel for post-viewing speculation in addition to being plain bloody brilliant— given what the third test’s outcome reveals about the motives underlying the whole quest, might it be that the faun and the ogre are really the same entity in different guises? Even the color schemes and lighting design are subliminally meaningful. I’ve been watching a lot of lazy, half-assed shit lately, so it was an utter joy to see something as meticulously put together as Pan’s Labyrinth.