Fighting Fascism with Fantasy

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)
Writ. & dir. Guillermo del Toro; feat. Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel
Verdú, Ariadna Gil, Doug Jones (R)
Don’t worry, he’s with me: director Guillermo del Toro and the Pale Man (Doug Jones), a creature from del Toro’s newest dark fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Though not the bloodiest or most consequential conflict of the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War occupies mythical status. A rehearsal for World War II in which fascist forces perfected aerial bombardment and Stalinists, liberals, and anarchists made common cause in defense of the Republic, it officially concluded in 1939 — yet violent resistance to the repressive Franco regime persisted into the 1960s.

In 1944, Carmen (Gil) and her daughter Ofelia (Baquero) arrive at an abandoned mill in rural Spain. The mill has been converted into a military outpost, and its commandant, Captain Vidal (López), has summoned them. Carmen, a Civil War widow, is his pregnant new wife, and Ofelia his fearful new stepdaughter. Vidal’s mission is to eradicate a guerrilla band based in the nearby forest, and he carries out his task with exceptional zeal, torturing and terminating farmers suspected of rebel sympathies. Vidal has no use for his dreamy young stepdaughter and little regard even for Carmen, except as the bearer of his heir.        

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the political is personal, and the personalities of Ofelia, Carmen, Vidal, and locals pressed into serving the captain are revealed in how they react to the clash of fascists and insurgents. While Vidal busies himself with slaughter and Carmen with a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia escapes into a phantasmagorical realm of fairies and ogres. Straying into a garden labyrinth outside the mill, she encounters a haughty faun (Jones) who tests the girl’s mettle with a daunting series of symbolic tasks.

Anyone familiar with Guillermo del Toro’s earlier work, including Cronos, Mimic, and The Devil’s Backbone, will not be shocked by the Mexican writer-director’s latest attempt to blend fantasy with plausible history. Del Toro is, in fact, wary of what passes for “fact.”

“I don’t believe in physical reality,” he announced during a telephone interview. “I don’t give more value to a palpable reality than an inner reality.”        

After Francisco Franco consolidated power, many opponents found refuge in Mexico. One expatriate became a mentor to the young del Toro, who was born in Guadalajara in 1964. Del Toro became particularly sympathetic to the plight of Spanish Republicans, who continued guerrilla offensives throughout World War II despite defeat of their regular forces.

“These guys were fighting for the Allies in the hopes that after Normandy, the British and Americans would join them in Spain,” del Toro said. The Allies had other priorities, and the Spanish resistance was left without hope. “It was,” del Toro stated, “an absolutely tragic time for the whole world, not just Spain.”

But the Mexican filmmaker’s interest in the Spanish Civil War derives not just from personal acquaintance with an exiled veteran.

“Under fascism,” he explained, “the first thing to go is imagination. The second thing is humor.” For an artist who dismisses physical reality, the repression imposed by Franco and others is antithetical to the essence of a film like Pan’s Labyrinth: “For me, fascism is a representation of the ultimate horror and it is, in this sense, an ideal concept through which to tell a fairy tale aimed at adults. Because fascism is first and foremost a form of perversion of innocence, and thus of childhood.”        For del Toro, “Fascism has no regard for imperfection, for the flaws of humanity. It destroys any innocence, any margin of error. It is an impulse toward abstraction.” And he insisted that he meant “any fascism, including the very Catholic kind found in Latin America.”        

Along with Alfonso Cuaron (Y tu mamá también) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), del Toro is part of a generation of assertive, innovative directors who are attracting world attention to contemporary Mexican cinema. However, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Spain 60 years ago, and it was filmed in the hills of Aguas Vertientes and La Garganta, outside Segovia. Its cast, including young Ivana Baquero, who puts in a striking turn as Ofelia, is largely Spanish. Does a Mexican bring a different sensibility to this project than a Spaniard might have? According to del Toro, being an outsider freed him from convention.

“The first thing to go was the usual logic of how things should be approached. I was nurtured by fable and parable. I approach things non-consecutively. My tendency is more liberating, my approach far more animistic.” Because “Anglo-Saxon culture thinks of a more calculated form of fascism,” del Toro believes that his style is less cerebral than an American’s might have been: “The world depicted in this movie is particularly visceral.”

The world at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth seems not to affirm the triumph of the imagination that the filmmaker apparently intended. Del Toro reported that he has encountered two antithetical reactions to the film’s final scene, which he likened to a Rorschach test. One can see it as an affirmation of beauty, compassion, and love, or, like this morose reviewer, one can leave the theater with a bleak vision of fascist hegemony. “It’s about the eye of the beholder,” said del Toro. “It’s as much about you as a girl in a labyrinth.”

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