by Guillermo del Toro
Commentary by Torey Lightcap
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
@ 2007 Torey Lightcap