Pan’s Labyrinth — Nominee for 2007 Oscar – Best Foreign Film

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno: 2006)

Foreign-language fantasies, after due diligence at, usually end up having their premiere on my DVD player but a friend was so enthusiastic and persistent about seeing this Oscar-nominated film (Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup, Foreign Language Film, Music [Score], Original Screenplay) while it was still in the theatres that I was convinced to watch it on the big screen. Mexican writer/director Guillermo del Toro has created a work that is beautifully filmed, with great computer-generated images (CGI), and excellent acting. Surprisingly, however, within moments of the film’s start, I found myself thinking more of Claudio Veliz’s comments on Anglo and Hispanic culture in The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America.

(see this Google Video for Dr. Veliz’s talk on “The Optional Descent of the English-Speaking World” at the Anglosphere Institute last October.)

In the English-speaking world, fairy tales are more often thought of as children’s stories … filled with drama that appeals to child and parent alike, granted … but not meant to relentlessly catalogue the horrors of life. Pan’s Labyrinth, as far as I can tell, is more an adult fairy tale of a Hispanosphere variety. Redemption, in this world, comes in denying your enemies their deepest needs. Satisfaction comes in another world entirely. As noted, my exposure to the intellectual underpinnings of this approach to life comes from Veliz and his comments about the Caliban/Ariel contrast between Anglo and Hispanic culture. To a lesser extent, my exposure to the realities of Hispanosphere life come from reading from Lawrence Harrison and Hernando De Soto. I may be off-base in seeing the origins of Pan’s Labyrinth in Latin American surrealist literary culture but I don’t think I’m mistaken in seeing it coming from a very different place than Anglosphere fantasies.

PL is a tale of the Spanish Civil War toward the end of the Second World War. In a forested rural part of Spain, a detachment of the Fascist forces (and their upper class military commander) have based themselves at an old mill to hunt down the last of the Republican guerrillas. The film opens with the arrival of the new wife of the commander, heavily pregnant with a first child, with her pre-pubescent daydreaming daughter (the commander’s step-daughter) in tow. The centerpiece of the film becomes the young girl’s subsequent movement in and out of a fantasy world … engaging with a nearby ancient labyrinthine ruin, and the supernatural faun she discovers there. It turns out she is a princess of an underworld realm who has strayed from home and now must accomplish heroic tasks to return to her real parents.

Much to the shock of the “real parents” in the audience and kids who sat in front of me, the pre-teen protagonist is immediately thrown into a maelstrom of monstrosities and violence which fully parallels the “real-life” turmoil of her mother’s difficult pregnancy, and the violence and cruelty of her step-father’s suppression of the guerillas and their civilian allies. I’ll avoid “spoiling” the end of the film for readers but must admit my dominant emotion at leaving the theatre was “relief.” Relief from the grimness of the story. And partly relief that I don’t have to live in a culture whose intellectuals are still this constipated at the beginning of the 21st century. The director has considerable success with translations of comic books to film for Hollywood audiences (Hellboy, Blade), and it’s entirely possible that I read too much into a single film and a single director’s vision — fantasy or otherwise. Perhaps there’s nothing intrinsically Hispanic about the theme or manner of presentation. I did experience the same aimlessness of plot in the director’s earlier movie Cronos (1993).

But the film is dark, nasty, and wrought with zero-sum transactions, while referencing a transcendental realm as both justification for action and refuge from result. Pan’s Labyrinth is a visual feast but also a grim bell-weather proclaiming, to me at least, the Hispanosphere is going nowhere when given free rein to its imaginings. And likely nowhere, any time soon, with its realities.

The gritty film dramas of South America and post-Franco Spain may be bleak and suitably existential in tone but somehow they are more palatably modern than a beautifully-realized fantasy that seems to proclaim human life as “two scorpions in a bottle,” endlessly stinging one another, while dreaming fecklessly of a better world.

In the end, this fantasy film only seems compelling for those who pine for socialist revolution, and can’t wait for the next round of brutality. Which perhaps makes it a Hollywood movie after all.

9 thoughts on “Pan’s Labyrinth — Nominee for 2007 Oscar – Best Foreign Film”

  1. Don’t understand the timescale, not having seen the film. Surely by the end of WW2 the Spanish Civil War was well and truly over by about six years.

  2. Re the time scale: The premise is that the Captain’s unit is hunting a post-war remnant group of rebels in the hills–rather like hunting down John Murtha’s band after 2012.

  3. I arrived to the same conclusion, but without excurses into LA surrealist literature. And on about 15th minute.
    The movie is a mixture of superstition and vulgar marxism. The world is painted black and white, or rather brown and red. Which are not that different, if you watch all the piling up of atrocities with unbiased eye – an unintended circumstance.

    For a while I thought all this “us against them” is eather a) a parody on Soviet propaganda movies of the 30’s or b)the worldview through the eyes of immature teenager, and will be corrected further on by loving and understanding parent.
    Alas, the goal was not to create an artpiece, but an agitfilm. Silly me!

  4. I am disappointed that Guillermo del Toro made such a movie. Hellboy is a vastly different different movie in tone.

    In Hellboy, the title character is a demon who is born/summoned into the world in order to bring about a Lovercraftian apocalypse. Adopted by American soldiers at the end of WWII, he grows up into a cigar chomping, demon fighter who sounds and acts like he came from Brooklyn. In the end, he defies his supposed destiny. The key line in the movie goes:

    What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once wondered. Is it his origins? The way he comes to life? I don’t think so. It’s the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.

    It’s a quintessential American movie as is the comic book. (Blade also have a similar theme.)

    I suspect that the original source material has more impact on del Toro than any political biases of his own. He seems to choose source material based on their visual properties than the actual story.

  5. this speaks ill of a great univeristy. . .

    I suppose the above is spam, but it unwittingly illustrates the Left’s obtuseness about moral as well as practical issues.

    “Divestment” is a nice phrase to use in political theater. However, in reality divestment means selling your shares, which means selling them to someone, which means selling them at a price that that someone is willing to pay. This generally means a below-market price. So, for a price, you get to wash your hands of your tainted shares, and in the process you help to transfer the ownership of companies in troubled parts of the world to people who are not so morally fastidious as you are. I’m sure you feel good about yourself, but I don’t understand how any of this helps people in Darfur.

  6. The part of Hollywood that does not recycle adolescent boy fantasies in CGA, has become very downbeat in the left wing fashion. This years crop of movies that are up for awards reflects this obsession. Pan’s Labyrinth is clearly political, an attempt to wave the bloody shirt of the Spanish Civil war. And yes del Toro is an intellectual grandchild of the Spanish reds who founded the Mexican film industry.

    But look at some of the others. Dystopian, anti-liberal and just plain misanthropic. I think the mood in Hollywood is very down beat, probably because their audience has not endorsed their political choices.

  7. I’m Spanish and I Went to see the film with my mother who is 65 five years old. She told me that Spain in 1944 was like the way the movie is. Poor, dark, nobody talked about the war…

Comments are closed.