DVD: Pan’s Labyrinth
Release date: 2006
Written, produced, and directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil. A joint Mexican-Spanish production
?Magic does not exist. Not for you, me, or anyone else.?
So says Carmen in response to her daughter Ofelia’s obsession with fairy tales. Having placed all her hopes for happiness in the hands of a dashing sociopath, Captain Vidal, Carmen has long abandoned belief in magic and expects her daughter to fill the role of a charming accessory to her new, upwardly mobile mode of life.
But magic does exist; it is the place where nature and the world of the spirit embrace each other in a dance of deep and lasting benevolence. Pan’s Labyrinth delivers pointed insights into the composition of this benevolence, or at least into what it is not. The labyrinth is a metaphor for 1944 Spain, which, like every main character in this film, is at a crossroads. The Spanish Civil War is here a context for an exploration of Goodness Itself, but Pan’s Labyrinth is far from your standard morality tale. It is at first unclear, for example, whether the faun and fairies are nasty or nice, or whether the freedom to disobey is a moral hazard or a priceless gift.
The fascist Captain Vidal demands total, blind obedience. The good doctor, knowing he will be killed for it, asserts: ?To obey?just like that?for the sake of obeying, without questioning, that’s something only people like you can do, Captain.?
And yet the faun also demands blind obedience: ?Do you promise to do what I say? Will you do everything I tell you, without question??
So much is staked upon obedience, both in the real world and the fantastic, but in the end it is obedience (and not, as the fascists would have it, human life) that is inconsequential. As Rilke put it in Letters to a Young Poet, sometimes the dragons in our lives are actually princesses in disguise, waiting for us to act nobly and courageously. Ofelia fails two out of three tests but this doesn’t matter; her essence remains intact. In other words, she has not lost her immortality.
?The door is locked,? Ofelia observes.
?In that case,? says the faun, ?create your own door.?
Del Toro holds up the real world and the world of fantasy to face each other like mirrors, permitting them continually to reference and ultimately to influence each other. The violence of the real world is echoed in the dining room of the pale man, a ravenous creature with piles of delectable food in front of it who nonetheless prefers to eat children. A pile of children’s shoes in the corner is painfully reminiscent of concentration camp exhibits in Holocaust museums.
Del Toro describes our spiritual origins with the use of pagan symbols, reiterating again and again the intimacy between nature and the world of spirit. Symbolism lurks around every corner: a knifed half-smile is sewn shut by its fascist owner; in a demonic parody of the gospel story the fascist captain gives up his son to the rebels; these rebels have until this point represented a kind of 20th century faun, neutral and natural, flitting through the woods in search of the redemption of the sons of men.
I would not have expected a Spanish film to have so vividly portrayed the magic of Celtic culture, but apparently Celtic culture came through the north of Spain, exerting an influence on peasant culture there and leaving behind architectural elements evocative of a Druidic spirituality.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find the Spanish language so strangely evocative of the faerie world. (Recent attempts to find an Acadian word for the wee folk proved fruitless in spite of my asking dozens of Acadians of different ages. Words for fairies are multitudinous in my Celtic-Anglo-Germanic background but I have yet to meet a French, Hispanic, or Italian person who has even one word for the little buggers.)
The soundtrack includes the most haunting and evocative melody by Javier Navarrette, and the visual clues to the meaning of the story are dense and compelling. But the greatest visual pleasure this movie has to offer is the face of young Ivana Baquero, who plays Ofelia. Seeing the play of light and shadow on her sensitive and responsive face, and watching the seamless transitions of emotion in her great chocolate egg eyes is like listening to Liszt on a Stradivarius.
In his comments del Toro observes that the 19th century dealt with children as ambassadors of a higher culture and that with all our good intentions we ruin their minds with what we call education. Immortality, according to del Toro, is the act of refusing death. As in the fable of the rose, you have to dare to die in order to achieve immortality.
The natural world is a manifestation of love. It is imperfect only because it is not Love Itself, and yet as evidence of the tenderest generosity it is indisputable, a sure sign that you too, when you refuse death while daring to die, are of royal origin, awaited by your royal parents in halls of splendour.
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