Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 25, 2007

Pan’s Labyrinth

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

Set in fascist-ruled Spain in 1944, “Pan’s Labyrinth” tells the story of 12 year Ofelia, who has just moved with her pregnant mother to a rural villa that serves as a military outpost run by the sadistic Captain Vidal, her new husband. In the mountains just beyond the villa, he seeks to wipe out an anti-fascist militia that is fighting a rear-guard action like Apaches in the 1880s. Since Ofelia is understandably repelled by her surroundings and Vidal, who she refuses to call “father”, she immerses herself in fairy tales just as youngsters have done since time immemorial until television came along and robbed them of their imagination.

One night Ofelia is visited by a fairy that originally appeared to her in the guise of a dragonfly. Unlike the winsome creatures in a Disney animation, the fairy in Guillermo del Toro’s much heralded new film has a slightly menacing aspect, complete with flapping wings that give off a creepy mechanical sound like the tail of an aluminum rattlesnake. The fairy leads Ofelia into a dank grotto beneath the villa that is ruled by a repulsive-looking 10 foot tall faun (half-man, half-goat) who instantly hails her as the long-lost princess of this netherworld.

From the sounds of it, this could be another “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, the 2005 children’s film based on C.S. Lewis’s fairy tale. Both stories take place during WWII and feature children being sent off to a country villa. In Lewis’s tale, the magic portal is a wardrobe closet, while in Guillermo del Toro’s film, it is a staircase. In both cases, the children are guided by a faun.

In keeping with the generally upbeat Christian sensibility of “Chronicles of Narnia,” the faun–named Mr. Tumnus–is a genial comic figure anxious to please. By contrast, the faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth” is demanding and aloof. Additionally, both Ofelia and the audience would regard this creature with some suspicion since the final task that Ofelia must carry out in order to establish her regal credentials goes against her sense of right and wrong. Without giving away too much, she is asked to sacrifice someone very close to her, just as the wrathful Yahweh demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.

However, in very important ways, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is not a children’s film. To begin with, there is every reason to doubt whether the fairies and other supernatural creatures exist outside of Ofelia’s troubled mind. It is to del Toro’s great credit that he maintains a tension between fantasy and reality until the end of the film, reminding me altogether of Marianne Moore’s description of poetry as imaginary gardens with real toads. Additionally, there are many scenes in which Captain Vidal tortures his anti-fascist captives. The violence is extremely graphic.

Undoubtedly, that imaginary garden is what del Toro seeks to create–including his own giant toad. Despite the fact that the film contains many scenes that depict the heroic struggle of the anti-fascist militia, it is really about the redeeming nature of youthful fantasizing and of art, its adult counterpart. In a world that is rapidly beginning to adopt the sadistic logic of Captain Vidal, art remains a valuable form of resistance.

When del Toro was asked by interviewer Emmanuel Itier in IFMagazine.com whether we are ruled by destiny, he answered:

You need to have a pure heart. Any dream you have in life you have to fight for it and go for it, this is how you achieve your destiny and deliver yourself from your fate, that initial life that was given to you but you did not choose it. To do that right you need to do it with heart, not greed.

There is a Basque poem that says: “He was such a poor man that all he could have was money!” We live in a world, a society that makes you believe you need the big house, the big car, and the big bank account. But truly what you need is love and love you cannot buy. In my films I always try to be spiritually inspiring and this is also true with Pan’s Labyrinth. I think this particular movie stands on its own because it’s the only one that is full of love from the beginning to the end.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is now playing at theaters everywhere. Put it on your list of must-see films.

9 Comments »

  1. Great review Louis..I`m going to give this film a look.

    Cheers

    Eric Pawlett
    Squamish B.C.
    Canada

    Comment by Eric Pawlett — January 25, 2007 @ 8:38 pm

  2. I am pretty sure it was a praying mantis, not a dragonfly. Oh, yeah,
    they are crunchy and apparently taste good.

    All credit to Guillermo del Toro for creating a visually appealing, emotionally charged, decidedly non-mainstream movie. There are, however,
    a few wrinkles. The non-fantasy world in the movie is far more engaging.
    The depictions of gruesome deaths of the major characters bring the war,
    the realization of fragility of human existence and the value of each
    individual human life to the fore. In contrast, the fantasy scenes
    appear disjointed and shallow – just the usual fare of children’s
    nightmares. The denouement is a particular letdown. I found myself
    creating alternative endings on my way back from the theater.

    Overall, the movie seems a bit infantile and reminds me of “The
    Never Ending Story”. However, I would definitely consider watching
    future productions by Mr. del Toro. I also decided to see his “Devil’s
    Backbone” which I understand may be a better picture with the same theme.

    Comment by Mikhail — January 25, 2007 @ 8:55 pm

  3. I’ve been a Marxmail subscriber for some years now, but mostly lurk on the board. I’m doing a major research project on the Spanish Civil War now, so the movie appeals to me. What I find of interest is that the story of the resistance after 1939 has yet to be written. I believe that there is still a controversy regarding post-1939 guerrillas in Spain’s parliament now (attempts to rehabilitate them are opposed by the right). The movie brings up the intereing ways people opposed to fascism dealt with the subject (escape into fairy tales and actual resistance as two examples). I’ll definitely check it out.

    Comment by Doug — January 25, 2007 @ 9:33 pm

  4. Excellent review as always; concise, insightful, useful (torture rules it out for my wife.)

    Comment by J. Marlin — January 25, 2007 @ 9:42 pm

  5. Great review of a fantastic film.

    I think the ending settles the argument about whether the fantasy world exists, simply by returning to the real world for that final scene. (How difficult it is to discuss without spoiling it for people who haven’t seen it!)

    I was particularly struck by how the resistance is portrayed. Resistance isn’t of course, just the fighters in the hills, but those who aid them occasionally (eg the Doctor) and those who turn a blind eye to those physically aiding the resistance (the old women in the kitchens for instance).

    I also think that Maribel Verdú’s character Mercedes, has to be one of the most powerful women characters ever filmed. Her last words to Captain Vidal absolutely sum up proletarian justice.

    It’s an amazing film. Go see it.

    Comment by ResoluteReader — January 26, 2007 @ 4:48 pm

  6. This movie’s strengths are the very things that an American version of the same story would get all wrong. For example, the movie explicitly endorses anti-fascist violence, whereas an American production would try to push some soppy, non-violent, apolitical alternative between the fascists and the guerrillas. Also, the movie treats fantasy as such; an American production (even for adults!) would end with some voiceover about how maybe magic really does exist, but adults simply have lost track of it.

    Comment by Robert (long-time lurker on Marxmail) — January 28, 2007 @ 7:58 am

  7. It does look excellent. I might have to overcome my cinema aversion and go take a look.

    Comment by a very public sociologist — January 29, 2007 @ 11:43 am

  8. > This movie’s strengths are the very things that an American version of
    > the same story would get all wrong. For example, the movie explicitly
    > endorses anti-fascist violence, whereas an American production would
    > try to push some soppy, non-violent, apolitical alternative between
    > the fascists and the guerrillas. Also, the movie treats fantasy as
    > such; an American production (even for adults!) would end with some
    > voiceover about how maybe magic really does exist, but adults simply
    > have lost track of it.

    Well, the Americans are of course to blame for it all, at the very least
    for the invention of drive-through ATMs.

    This movie substitutes its own simplistic stereotypes for the soppy
    Hollywood cliches. Capital Vidal is devil incarnate (he just forgot
    his “I am evil” t-shirt at home). The guerrillas are all saints. If
    the francists were led by Snowwhite and Seven Dwarfs, would they
    be less deserving of violent opposition?

    Comment by Mikhail — February 28, 2007 @ 3:18 pm

  9. In the funeral scene ( where Ofelias mother is being buried) the narrator recites a poem, Does anyone know the title, author?

    Comment by Ivan — February 9, 2008 @ 5:59 am


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