Foreign-language fantasies, after due diligence at IMDB.com, 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.