Femininity Dismantled Fascism in “Pan’s Labyrinth”

Christian Bolles, Arts Editor

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Nowhere is oppression more boldly confronted than in our attempts to escape it. The worlds we build on the page and before the camera serve as intrinsically subversive pathways, telling stories that lift us from the grasp of dark forces while lending perspective to their machinations. Few periods of history are better acquainted with these forces than the nearly three-year Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which culminated in the crushing defeat of a left-wing movement at the hands of a ruthless fascist counterrevolution under the iron grip of General Francisco Franco. In the aftermath of the atrocity-ridden conflict, the remaining leftist rebels who could still muster the will to fight resorted to guerilla warfare, staging their meager rebellion by moonlight under the cover of thick forest. In such an atmosphere of hopelessness, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro found a haunting muse. A modern classic that none have attempted to replicate, 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth stands as a testament to the virtues of cinematic escapism, and remains a powerful argument for the immortality of film as a medium. With a midnight showing tonight at the Apollo Theatre, audiences have the perfect excuse to revisit a terrifying and gorgeous world — one that will seem achingly familiar as history once again comes full circle.

Del Toro wrote the entirety of his Pan’s Labyrinth script while listening to the tranquil melody of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im spiegel,” translating to “mirror in the mirror,” a poignant summation of the telescopic narrative that defines del Toro’s masterpiece. The film tells the tale of a little girl named Ofelia who is forced to travel to a remote countryside military estate when her pregnant, ailing mother, Carmen, marries a Francoist captain named Vidal out of concern for the wellbeing of her daughter and future son. But Vidal’s rule over his isolated forest kingdom — reminiscent of Franco’s larger control over Spain — proves to be a violent one, and Ofelia finds solace in strange fantasies inspired by an ancient maze nestled at the edge of the estate’s grounds. More than just flights of fancy, the power of the labyrinth becomes all too real when a nameless faun tempts the young girl with the promise of royalty in another world. Told mostly from Ofelia’s perspective, Pan’s Labyrinth is a film of narrative layers, transitioning beautifully from the protagonist’s fantastical escapades to scenes of brutal violence.

As with most of his filmography, del Toro’s fantasy world in Pan’s Labyrinth is less a departure from reality than a dark mirror of human vice. In a powerful statement on the effects of atrocity on children, the horrors that surround the film’s central character seep into the fantasy world she longs to escape to; visions of fairies eventually give way to the decapitation of those same sprites. In an unforgettable scene — familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of del Toro’s work — Ofelia finds herself stranded in the domain of a terrifying creature referred to canonically as the Pale Man. With a set designed to evoke a creepily synthetic, medieval-esque temple and a Gregorian soundscape undercutting sweeping shots of murals depicting the Pale Man’s preferred diet — children — as well as a telling pile of small shoes, one gets the sense of a realm that exists for the sole purpose of fostering evil.

Pan’s Labyrinth finds its moments of comfort not in fantasy, but in kindness. Carmen’s motherly love is supplemented by the painstaking compassion of Mercedes, Vidal’s witty and secretive housekeeper. The film places itself squarely on the side of the rebel guerillas scattered throughout the forest surrounding the captain’s estate, and many of its most hopeful moments come from portrayals of their heroics. Yet it is the staying power of solidarity between Ofelia, Carmen and Mercedes in the face of Vidal’s toxic, overbearing masculinity that drives the emotional core of Pan’s Labyrinth, and the contrast between the two forces pays narrative dividends. Occasionally departing from Ofelia’s point of view to follow Vidal on myriad ventures, from assaults on the rebels to quiet moments shaving alone, del Toro uses these intense portraits to highlight the chaotic, anger-propelled egoism at the captain’s heart. He paints Ofelia and Vidal as moral opposites, paving the way to an outcome alluded to in the first frame of the movie. Mercedes receives the same narrative treatment, holding her own vital subplot for the film’s duration. Her ability to undercut authority for the sake of doing good is juxtaposed with the captain’s haughty self-assurance that her gender disqualifies her from outwitting him, words that — it shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say — will later be served to him on a platter. The film’s most emotional moments come from the interactions between Mercedes and Ofelia, the former seeing the displaced young girl as a bird in need of a wing. The theme of the soundtrack is most raw when delivered in the housekeeper’s own soft voice, epitomizing the tender safety of her relationship with our trapped heroine.

Though it is impossible to talk about Pan’s Labyrinth without addressing its gruesome violence, credit must be given to the brilliance of its visual direction for the film’s unique palatability. Del Toro’s signature color scale — soft blues, muted beiges, deep reds — lends each frame a unique, polished texture that keeps viewers immersed while constantly reminding that they are, in fact, watching a fantasy within a fantasy. The distinction in art direction between our world and what little we see of the faun’s is a study in contrast; the former is clean and morally bankrupt — the sharp-heeled footprint of fascism — while the latter deals in alluring, dreamlike chaos, characterized by flawed spiral designs and cracked, overgrown stone. The stylization of the film’s violence robs it of no emotional impact and manages to avoid breaking the eggshell-thin lens of intoxicating beauty that del Toro so carefully crafted.

The miracle of the existence of Pan’s Labyrinth is a rare thing in the world of cinema. Filmed on a relatively low budget of $19 million, much taken out of del Toro’s own pocket and from the donations of good friend and fellow director Alejandro González Iñárritu, it’s a Spanish-language film with Hollywood sensibilities. Indeed, it was del Toro’s choice to sign on with a Spanish production company rather than one based in Los Angeles — despite offers for double the budget from the latter — as Pan’s Labyrinth is, first and foremost, a story about an agonizing time in Spain’s history. Since Franco’s rule continued after the events of the film until his death in 1975, del Toro’s film acts as a reclamation of leftist identity in a time when it had nearly been stomped out. Pan’s Labyrinth tells us that even in the darkest years of a country, there is untold power in the dreams of every little girl looking for a way ahead.

Oberlin community members looking to escape to del Toro’s twisted world can go to the Apollo Theatre tonight at midnight, where Pan’s Labyrinth will make a rare appearance on the big screen.

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