Tom Jennings reviews Guillermo del Toro's Pan’s Labyrinth, a fantastical tale set in post-Civil War Spain.
Between a Roc and a Hard Place
This unusual film follows twelve year-old Ofelia to Galicia, North-West Spain, when her mother marries a vicious Civil Guard captain mopping up anti-fascist resistance in 1944.
Servants and villagers variously bow and scrape or surreptitiously support the freedom fighters, and as the skirmishes become more threatening Ofelia withdraws into her love of classic children’s literature, imagining herself as fairy princess returning to paradise. The resolutions to both real-life and mythical quests neatly hinge on mature ethical choices of bravery, altruism and solidarity, with appropriate ambivalence.
So the princess returns to her faerie dreamworld only in death, just as rites of passage formalise childhood’s end. Conversely, we know that the guerillas’ final triumph is, sadly, very local and temporary. Unfortunately, to convince, such ambitious magical realism would require unconscious and external dynamics to fully intermingle in Ofelia’s awareness and behaviour – growing up being a long gradual process rather than a short set of arbitrary rituals. In neglecting her depths, attention is lavished instead on those of the labyrinth.
The Mexican writer-director’s supreme reputation among horror-fantasy cognoscenti is certainly justified by the beautifully realised fauns, fairies and monsters. The latter nicely encapsulate the Francoist ideology of National Catholicism, trumpeted as ‘cleansing’ Spain but instead dirtying it for decades. Del Toro interprets the appalling Pale Man, with disembodied eyes in stigmata’d hands, as symbolising the Catholic church.
Surely, though, it embodies the military as rulers-by-divine-right, mechanically activated into cruel brutality when insubordinates act to satisfy their desires. In that case, the revolting gigantic toad under the fig tree, smothering the roots (and hence fruits) of the land and its people with rapacious parasitic greed, better represents the church – which, nevertheless, conceals the instrument of liberation within its guts; the spiritual key to defeating the Pale Man and collectivising his private banquet.
Del Toro’s cult genre experiments always yield outstanding narrative invention, visual imagination and cinematic flair. The two Spanish civil war dramas, however, reference older conventions – of the fairytale (here) and ghost story (The Devil’s Backbone, 2001). Ironically, his work which avoids explicit politics tends to contain more sophisticated social and philosophical critique.
Perhaps concern to depict the fascist plague accurately – which florid embellishment might spoil – constrained the liberties taken in the fantasy register. Also, given the scarcity of mainstream fictional treatments covering this period in Spain, it seems churlish to complain. But after the oversimplifications of Ay Carmela (Carlos Saura, 1990) and Land and Freedom (Ken Loach, 1995), I’d hoped for more than a routine feudal fable – of infantile patriarchal utopia as regressive palliative, merely paralleling the monstrous reality of moral dictatorship.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 1, January 2007
For more essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: