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Pan's Labyrinth
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Pan's Labyrinth
directed by Guillermo del Toro
R rating
Commentary by Torey Lightcap

A maze of meaning beneath the surface

In one of his essays, the existentialist psychologist Rollo May identifies a key principle to grappling with the sort of unconscious urges that would otherwise undo us: “identify with that which haunts you, not in order to fight it off, but to take it into your self; for it must represent some rejected element in you.”

Later in the same essay he writes that acute loneliness “is the most painful form of anxiety that can attack the human psyche.” Finally May argues that real therapeutic change in a person takes shape as the patient begins naming the elements of his/her unconscious that are at work, and not merely at the level of language (“I’m a paranoid schizophrenic”) but at the level of insight and self-realization. That last bit sounds paradoxical—to name the unconscious—but you may know from your own life how it works.

In his comprehensive shorthand, May’s distinctions help us grapple with the process undergone by Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the young heroine of Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth (originally titled El Laberinto del Fauno). The movie runs under the tagline “Innocence has a power evil cannot imagine,” but happily Mr. del Toro labors at that truth with love, teasing it out slowly, so that finally we are compelled to do some pretty heavy lifting if we want what this piece is offering us. Otherwise, it’s just a violent fairy tale fitted with flat characters and an inexplicable tone.

The film is the story of young Ofelia, the daughter of Carmen, who’s pregnant with Ofelia’s little brother in Francisco Franco’s Spain in 1944, just following the end of that country’s civil war. The conflict, however, is far from over, as countryside rebels continue to fight it out from the hills (think Hemingway), and as Franco loyalists station themselves so as to crush the last of the rebellion. In charge of one pro-Franco encampment is the cruel Capitán Vidal, an unblinking government servant and father to the child growing inside Carmen. The old mill upon which he erects his outpost is our stage, and his black rage is the red thread of our plot. The gates of the ancient, unexplored labyrinth on the property make a fine proscenium arch. All we need is a heroine and a cause.

Just so. By the time we meet her as she and Carmen journey to the next chapter of their lives, Ofelia is already in the grasp of a piercing loneliness of the soul (May’s “anxiety”). She lacks the practical experience to make sense of her stressful surroundings, and so she retreats into the creative fathoms of her well-read imagination, where a central narrative of healing is bounded by tests of her virtue and courage. The more she regresses into the mind, the more reality and fantasy merge, and the more she unconsciously processes the issues of her waking life—a sort of self-directed therapy.

At that level, fine—she is young and, until the Capitán comes crashing into her life, largely innocent other than having lived through the death of her father. (After meeting the character of the Capitán, the viewer may even begin to wonder if he didn’t have Ofelia’s father killed out of jealousy or spite.)

But she’s not just out conjuring fairies and rainbows. Ofelia’s coping heart is a seedbed of imagination rife with repugnant creatures who have questionable motivations. As it must be, this world is also a highly polished reflection of herself: not only is she surrounded by crude ugliness (the chiaroscuro on-screen is alternately reminiscent of Peter Breugel or Hieronymous Bosch, and the score turns from brutality to bliss on a single eighth note), she is also capable of perpetrating some great evil, a fact symbolized here by her taking a death-dealing knife or stealing forbidden fruit.

But capability does not always give rise to culpability. It is due to Ofelia’s response to the indefinable good inside herself (“God”? will? standing for life and not for death?) that she does not succumb to her baser desires. Her dreams articulate a deep longing to lash out, to hurt, or at least to wind. So she is more like the Capitán than she might like to admit; only where she feeds on the living conjured image, he feeds on useless abstractions about his moral obligations to the state, or about the necessity of dying a noble wartime death. Don’t miss the image— underneath is a dialogue about the real definition of faith (blind obedience or adherence to the greater narrative of life?).

Even so, Ofelia does not ultimately fail either of the tests of innocence placed before her as the final reel unspools. It is not that she is necessarily pure, but rather that she has chosen wisely and in favor of the good so far: whether or not her heart remains unblemished, she still actively pursues the most positive end feasible. Her name, she imagines, lives on forever in the world of fantasy that exists for a brief second at the end of the picture. Every subject in her kingdom now welcomes the returning heroine.

In contrast, the Capitán loses his name and receives a romanticized form of justice that gives Ofelia an escape clause—she weakens him, but does not ultimately kill. She prepares the Capitán for slaughter and then delivers him up so the blood will be on someone else’s hands in a kind of half-assertion of her innocence. Ultimately, maybe Ofelia is complicit without being guilty—an unindicted co-conspirator acting on behalf of a higher good. Mr. del Toro does not come banging us over the head with this message; it lies in a collection of subtle and ultimately subjective distinctions. That’s nothing less than the artist doing his duty to provoke.

Through Ofelia, del Toro processes the great tragedies of war, suffering, and cruelty using the most powerful filmic instruments available: a storyline that employs the symbols of the unconscious working for the greater good, and a brilliant paintbox that invites imagination and whimsy, even as it repels.

Copyright @ 2007 Torey Lightcap


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