By Chad Nance
“There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead.”
– Arthur Machen
“Just like any honest man, I am against Franco and Fascism in Spain.”
– Ernest Hemingway
There are moments of heart-breaking truth in Guillermo Del Toro’s masterwork (thus far) Pan’s Labyrinth. The entire film is a dense, thoughtful and exquisitely cinematic fairy tale that sticks with you long after you’ve watched it. Haunting like the lonely singing of a small child, Pan’s Labyrinth is a mesmerizing trip inside of heart and soul of a little girl who finds herself trapped by circumstance in Franco’s Post Civil War Spain.
Using Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for The Wind and the Willows and Goya’s immortal “Saturn Devouring His Son” as a visual jumping off point, Del Toro and his collaborators paint a rich, surreal world full of greens, blues, reds and golds that almost vibrate with their intensity. Alternately, they also create a dark, brooding as Franco’s Spain with all of the hard edges, deep blacks and hard grays of visualized fascism.
The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with the defeat of the second democratic republic and Francisco Franco taking power as dictator. The postwar period was marked by escalating violence and repression from the Francoist regime, as well as by resistance from antifascist guerrillas who hid in the mountains and were aided by village sympathizers.
Fascism is represented in Pan’s Labyrinth by Vidal, Ofelia´s stepfather, a vicious captain in Franco’s Civil Guard based at a rural military post. He is in charge of eliminating the guerrillas resisting in the mountains. Ofelia, the child heroine, is an orphan whose father died in obscure circumstances during the Spanish Civil War. Carmen, her mother, is under the thumb of the controlling and sadistic Vidal who limits her to a wheelchair so that his incubating child might be kept in the utmost safety. Vidal is a man of great brutality and fear.
Carmen stays constantly doped up and confined to her bedroom. From the beginning of the story, it is clear that Ofelia does not want to establish a daughter/father relationship with Vidal. Moreover, it is soon very obvious that Vidal is incapable of noble feelings, and completely uninterested in any type of filial relationship with Ofelia.
Del Toro’s most haunting creation here is the Pale Man. This seductive and loathsome creature is disturbing in an almost primal way. A devourer of children and a seducer on par with Satan himself, the make-up work and incredible physical performance by Doug Jones haunts and frightens in the best way possible.
Clearly the fairy tales of Charles Perrault helped Del Toro form a mythic pallet as a way into the “real world” narrative about the compromises good people make and the black darkness that is in the hearts of men. Into a threatening and violent world, torn apart by civil war and brutalized by violent fascism, Del Toro tells us the story of a young girl who does not belong in that world… not one little bit. This girl is a princess destined to complete great tasks of internal strength, wit and spiritual challenge.
Some of Del Toro’s imagery glows with a warm grace embracing the audience and delivering them into a sumptuous world of fantasy and mystery. Much of Del Toro’s imagery, though still retaining a lived in richness, is stark, bloody and brutal.
Carl Jung examined the role that myth and archetypes play in the plurality of the psyche. According to Jung, an archetype is a pre-existent or latent pattern of being and behaving, and these patterns are contained in a collective, universal unconscious. Thus the Greek gods and goddesses are archetypal figures because they represent the fundamental structure of a man or a woman’s psyche. As Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen explains: “Myths from Greece that go back over 3,000 years stay alive, they are told and retold, because the gods and goddesses speak to us truths about human nature.”
Del Toro’s playground are these myths that human beings tell one another. By using these familiar archetypes (particularly those in the Cronus myth) the filmmaker can provide the audience with a deeper narrative and take his time with character. As in Goya’s painting, Cronus/Saturn ate his children so that they might never take his own place in the world.
Presiding at the head of their respective tables, Pale Man and Vidal are a reflection of each other. The Catholic Church, a close ally in Franco’s fascist dictatorship, is symbolically present at both settings. It is represented in Vidal’s male guest of honor; the priest seated to his left, as well as in the Pale Man scene. The stigmata-like eyes on the monster’s hideous hands signify the zealotry through which the church has wielded authority since the institution rose to power in the fourth century. The paintings depicting the Pale Man killing and eating children represent the innocent lives taken by Vidal and thus the fascist regime. The pile of children’s shoes crudely points to concentration camps within the historical context in which the action takes place. There are more elements worthy of analysis but ultimately, the Pale Man’s almost noiseless scene not only represents Ofelia’s unconscious anxiety but above all, the fantasy she creates at the ineffable terror of being consumed by Cronus. Del Toro and Jones work to personify the ferocious inevitability of humanity’s capacity for debasement and cruelty.
Pan’s Labyrinth can be seen on Wednesday night as part of a/perture’s Screen Club Series. With new poster art created by Winston-Salem artist Jennifer O’Kelley, it is an amazing opportunity for audiences to see this seminal and important work properly projected onto a big screen. The sumptuous and detailed work of Del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro was created to be projected, and Pan’s Labyrinth was designed for the movies, not for television. Pan’s Labyrinth moves, inspires and always touches audiences with its operatic tale of basic human needs and desires. Fear is a hunter… and love is eternal.
You can get tickets ahead and see showtimes HERE.