Pan’s Labyrinth

The moment the preview of Pan’s Labyrinth started rolling, I knew I was going to see it. Visually, it’s dazzling. It just won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Cinematography (the latter I believe really deserved to go to “Children of Men”).

As JQS said at lunch, it’s unfortunate that Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men came out back-to-back. Each movie delivers such an intense visual, aural, and emotional punch that I want to spend time mulling over them and sorting out my feelings. Now my experience of them are woven together by comparisons.

Both movies deal with responses to fascism. Children of Men is set in the near future where hope has died along with the children. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Franco’s Spain, where both sides are willing to die and to kill in order to vouchsafe their vision of the future for their children. Children of Men is relentlessly grim. All I remember is gray. Pan’s Labyrinth is uncompromisingly brutal. The colors glow in brilliant jewel-tones, with strong contrasts between light and dark and flashes of blood red.

Pan’s Labyrinth has a double intertwining narrative–two stories that swirl around the fate of a young girl, Ofelia. Ofelia’s life provides plenty of “scope for the imagination” as Anne of Green Gables would say. Unlike Anne’s, both Ofelia’s life and her imagination are nightmarish. The line between reality and fantasy is purposely blurred. Distinguishing between real and imagined, facts and dreams is irrelevent. The truth is not literal; it is allegorical. Mere literalness is superficial.

As I was researching Candlemas and Setsubun for another post, I came across a quote from Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, which helped explain the usefulness of the supernatural and the symbolic in infusing meaning to a chaotic and violent world.

“History”, [Eugene Ionesco] said recently, “is a process of corruption, it is chaotic, unless it is oriented to the supernatural.” The candle-lit procession in black garments, the symbolic encounter between chaos and light which it represents, should remind us of this truth and give us courage to see the supernatural, not as a waste of time, distracting us from the business of ameliorating the world, but as the only way in which meaning can be brought to bear on the chaotic side of life. — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

I think that Guillermo del Toro is also using the supernatural to bring meaning to the world–a world where torture and murder no longer shock us. I’m so tired of the current American fetish with literalism that I’m glad that Mexican filmmakers are demonstrating the power of myth to alter our perceptions and enrich our understanding of the bald facts.

There is one scene in Pan’s Labyrinth which reveals the moral–we must not be blindly obedient. The doctor has disobeyed an order from the Captain and put a prisoner being tortured out of his misery. Vidal is shocked that the doctor has disobeyed him. “I don’t understand–Why didn’t you obey me?” The doctor thinks a moment and replies. “To obey without thinking–just like that–Well, that’s something only people like you can do, Captain.”

In the end, Ofelia, too, is faced with the choice whether to obey or to follow her conscience. In her case she is listening to the advice of someone whom she has disobeyed earlier with horrible consequences. She knows this is a test yet her only choice seems to be the wrong one. To obey without thinking, that is the real evil. And unlike the message we get from American shows such as “24”, the ends do not justify the means.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a very difficult movie to watch because the scenes of war and torture are realistically violent, not video-game violent. I would watch Children of Men again in an instant…but I don’t know if I could ever watch Pan’s Labyrinth again. And yet I think it is a very good movie, a very special movie. I’m not at all sorry I saw it once–but I’m still trying to think of who I’d recommend it to. (Bug, if you’re reading this, I recommend it to you.)

2 Responses to “Pan’s Labyrinth”

  1. M2 Responds:

    That’s exactly the information that I needed. B and I were waiting for a “canary report.” We’d heard it was a truly great, but harsh, movie. Now I know what mood I need to be in, and that I want to see it when I can.

    Remembering B’s reaction to my recommendation of “Howard’s End” is one thing that gives me pause in sending my friends off to see “Pan’s Labyrinth”. I’m looking forward to reading your reaction. — mss

  2. Angelina Responds:

    I don’t think I could handle seeing Pan’s Labyrinth, I’ve seen a lot of films that were profound and also beautifully filmed though hard to watch and they stick with me for a long time. I am interested in The Children Of Men, though I’m afraid that it would also bring me down. I am attracted to films about the future but I prefer it if the end brings with it some message of hope. I’m always looking for the little spark of hope.

    “Children of Men” may or may not end on a spark of hope. It’s open to interpretation. I think it’s hopeful. In “Children of Men” you hurtle through the action so quickly, you don’t have time to stop and think before it’s over–like a roller coaster ride. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is slow and painful; much more excrutiating. — mss

The surface and beneath the surface