Recently I saw a powerful film called Pan's Labyrinth. The filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro, is obviously of a man of the left, but it appears to me that he is groping toward something much bigger than political ideology. As with any great work of art, there's a lot going on in this film, and I'll try my best to lay it out systematically, but it may be too much for me to bind together into a coherent argument.
I'm writing this assuming you have seen the film. BE WARNED: this means that I'll not shy from SPOILING the surprises. It's a powerful film, worth seeing without my interpretations supervening from your memory, although it is at times frightfully and somewhat gratuitously violent.
The film reflects the particular character and gifts of the Hispanophone soul and actually consists of two parallel stories. First the grim reality of Ofelia's "real" life in post-Civil War Spain: she is a 12-year-old girl enthralled by fairy tales that follows her mother to the Nationalist outpost commanded by her new step-father, Captain Vidal (her actual father died before the action begins). (Recall that the Nationalists under command of Francisco Franco had won the war; the leftist Republicans were their opponents.) Second, the fairy-tale side, best introduced by the voiceover just after the initial scene and a later monologue by the faun:
A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from. Her body suffered cold, sickness, and pain. Eventually, she died. However, her father, the King, always knew that the Princess's soul would return, perhaps in another body, in another place, at another time. And he would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning...
Faun: Your real father had us open portals all over the world to allow your return. This is the last of them. But we have to be sure that your essence is intact, that you have not become a mortal. You must complete three tasks before the moon is full.
The three tasks require Ofelia to exercise various virtues. The first requires courage. The second additionally requires temperance (she nearly fails for lack of it). The third requires a virtue that transcends the cardinal virtues. We will later return to the third task.
Ontology and Obedience
As you may have already noticed, the fairy-tale premise of the film relies on a form of mind-body dualism (hence the idea of earthly reincarnation). In such views the body is a prison for the spirit. For this reason, it is really no surprise that the film has the doctor, one of the "good guys," employ euthanasia1 to end the pain of a Republican that Captain Vidal has tortured (and plans to torture further). In answering Vidal, the doctor explains his disobedience of Vidal's order to heal the prisoner for further questioning, "But captain, to obey—just like that—for obedience's sake... without questioning... That's something only people like you do."
Obedience is an issue in Spanish culture. From my outsider's perspective, it seems that historically the Spanish have either obeyed without question, or not at all. You may recall that the tragedy of the Spanish Armada turned on the question of obedience. At the Armada's approach, the English fleet was trapped in port for many hours by an inauspicious tide, and the Spanish admiral could have ordered the Armada to take it out like fish in a barrel, were it not for his unwavering obedience to his King's orders as to how the English were to be engaged. In other words, the greatest defeat in Spanish history could easily have been its definitive victory, were it not for blind obedience to orders.2
More modern generations naturally enough reject this morbid rigidity, but go to the opposite extreme. What's lost is the happy medium: intelligent obedience, in which a leader specifies a general result and allows the subordinate to determine the most appropriate means.
One thing I found annoying about the film is the unquestioned and uniform presumption that the Republicans (the leftists in the Spanish Civil War) are good, and that everyone representing the traditional order is evil. The only clear representative of Christian Faith in the film, an old priest, chows down to a hearty meal while he cheerily agrees with Vidal's plan for severe rationing of the local people.
The Nationalist troops are even worse, especially Ofelia's step-father, Vidal, who is a monster rivaling those in the Ofelia's fairy tales. Of course the actual history of the Civil War is not so clear cut. The Republicans were far from the doughty boy scouts of the film.3 A.O. Scott's New York Times review put it well: "Mercedes’s [the maid's] surreptitious visits to the rebels often coincide with Ofelia’s journeys into fairyland, and it may be that the film’s romantic view of the noble, vanquished Spanish Republic is itself something of a fairy tale." (As we'll see later, it could even be this air about Mercedes and the rebels is part of Ofelia's fairy tale.)
The Republicans rejected Spain's traditional Catholic Faith. When Ofelia asks Mercedes whether she believes in fairies, Mercedes replies, "No. But when I was a little girl, I did. I believed in a lot of things I don't believe anymore." One senses that Christian Faith is one of those things.
Self-sacrifice and Meaning
Despite the rejection of Christian Faith, the film transcends the usual cramped ideologies of the left. The baby brother is clearly a human person even in his mother's womb (and del Toro even goes through the trouble of using a CGI to show him). Indeed, the lives of innocents play a central role in this film.
Ofelia's failure to control her appetites during her second task results in the deaths of two of her fairy guides. Concupiscence is exactly the vice that issues in so many abortions.4 (Notice how the Pale Man represents concupiscence: insatiable appetite and eyes in his grasping hands. When the he chases Ofelia, he is that vice roused to life.)
In Ofelia's third and final task, the faun asks her to surrender her baby brother to him to regain her homeland.
Faun: Quickly Your Majesty, give him to me. The full moon is high in the sky. We can open the portal.
Ofelia: What is that in your hand?
Faun: (glancing at large ceremonial dagger) The portal will only open if we offer the blood of an innocent. Just a drop of blood: a pinprick, that's all. It's the final task. [Early in the film, Mercedes had advised Ofelia that fauns are untrustworthy.]
Faun: Hurry. You promised to obey me. Give me the boy!
Ofelia: No! My brother stays with me.
Faun: You would give up your sacred rights for a brat you barely know?
Ofelia: Yes, I would.
Faun: You would give up your throne for him? He who has caused you such misery, such humiliation?
Ofelia: Yes, I would.
Faun: As you wish, Your Highness.
It is clear how Del Toro has returned to the theme of obedience here. He's showing that blind obedience is wrong. Point well made. What he may not see as clearly is that this disobedience to an earthly authority in this case is justified by obedience to a higher law made by an authority that transcends this world. Only a transcendent authority can guarantee the transcendent worth of a human person, even an infant. Lacking such an authority, the only support for human dignity is evanescent emotion or earthly might ("might makes right").
Vidal fatally shoots Ofelia in cold blood. While the girl lies dying, Mercedes weeps over her body, humming the mournful lullaby that haunts the soundtrack. A surge of light envelopes the dying Ofelia and she finds herself restored in her father's kingdom:
King: Arise, my daughter. Come. You have spilled your own blood rather than the blood of an innocent. That was the final task and the most important.
Faun: And you chose well, Your Highness.
Carmen: Come here with me, and sit by your father's side.5
The visual symbolism of this scene is revealing. Is it not significant that what is nominally the kingdom of the underworld is flooded by light? It is not clear what del Toro intended by the underworld kingdom (philosophical materialism?), but the spontaneous human response to light makes it the most potent sign of beatitude.
Is the cruciform symmetry of the round-stained glass purely accidental? Ofelia and her parents all wear red. But is it the red of the Revolution or the red of the martyrs' Love? That Ofelia has not drawn others' blood but surrendered her own would seem to imply the latter. As David Mills observed of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, the story "works" to the extent that it reflects the Great Story.6
The poignant contrast between the stark, cold world and the child-like spiritual reality is reminiscent of the conclusion of Graham Greene's masterful The Power and the Glory. It is a mystical vision that sees the Divine in the face of the tragic, and I think it is especially characteristic of the Spanish mind. There is no middle ground, but the two extremes entail each other: the tragedy is the glory. You can hear the uncompromising "all or nothing" of the Spanish mind in the decisive snap of the Spanish "no." This lack of compromise is perhaps why Spanish is a language so suited to talking to God and has produced great mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. As Emperor Charles V is reported to have said, "To God I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French, and to my horse German."7 He was on to something.
After Ofelia's mother's death earlier in the film, the priest's funeral oration8 reflects the mystical recognition of God's presence in apparent absence:
Because the paths of the Lord are inscrutable.
Because the essence of his forgiveness lies in His word and in His mystery.
Because although God sends us the message, it is our task to decipher it.
Because when we open our arms, the earth takes in only a hollow and senseless shell. Far away now is the soul in its eternal glory.
Because it is in pain that we find the meaning of life and the state of grace that we lose when we are born.
Because God, in His infinite wisdom, puts the solution in our hands. And because it is only in His physical absence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.
As in the story Ofelia spontaneously devises much earlier in the film to tell her unborn brother, eternal life can only come through death:
Many, many years ago in a sad, faraway land, there was an enormous mountain made of rough, black stone. At sunset, on top of that mountain, a magic rose blossomed every night that made whoever plucked it immortal. But no one dared go near it because its thorns were full of poison. Men talked amongst themselves about their fear of death, and pain, but ever about the promise of eternal life. And every day, the rose wilted, unable to bequeath its gift to anyone...forgotten and lost at the top of that cold, dark mountain, forever alone, until the end of time.
Like the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, Ofelia's final choice is not not so much to surrender for someone else her earthly life, but her eternal life. Recall that the whiskey priest is committing a sacrilege when he says Mass for his flock, because he is in a state of serious sin, and he knows he is damning himself. Similarly, Ofelia doesn't so much give up her life to save her brother from the faun (it is Vidal who kills her), but her chance to pass into her father's kingdom.
By materialistic lights, the fairy-tale ending is pure fantasy: if this life is all we have, the dream must die with the dreamer. Separating truth from dream in the events portrayed in the film is frustrated by the initial scene in which Ofelia lies dying alone with a ribbon of blood spreading from her nose. The blood then "rewinds" itself, implying that the rest of the film is a recollection of events leading up to that moment. But is it a recollection of events as they actually happened, or the wishful reconstruction of a young life tragically grasping for meaning and in a world devoid of meaning?
Del Toro's intention is unclear. He may be trying to say that meaning in the world is simply the wishful thinking of a childish imagination. Certainly we humans have a natural thirst for meaning, but just because we want it doesn't make it illusory. The existence of a thirst does not itself indicate that its object is unreal. On the contrary, as C.S. Lewis points out,
The Christian says, "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. (Mere Christianity III.10)
Regardless of whether del Toro intends his film as a critique of mystical vision or an example of it, it is clear that he intends his film to have meaning, that is, to point to something—a truth—beyond itself. Whatever he intends, that the world itself cannot contain ultimate meaning highlights our need for it and points beyond the world to Real Meaning, a presence limned by absence:
And because it is only in His physical absence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.
1. Though it must be admitted that the issue is somewhat clouded in wartime, especially since the doctor is an ally of the Republican rebels.
2. I don't know the history in detail, but this obedience could well have been determined by a solemn oath.
3. The actual truth of the Spanish Civil War is not so simple. Among their many crimes, the Republicans were notoriously anti-clerical. They mercilessly hunted down and murdered clergy and religious (i.e., monks and nuns). They even exhumed the bodies of religious and put them on display as a sign of disrespect.
4. On the other hand the fact that Vidal has no real love for his wife (Ofelia's mother), but is only using her for the children she will bear, embodies the typical leftist charge that the wife in a traditional family is merely a baby-producing slave (abortion and contraception are typical means to "liberate" women). The charge ignores the fact that women are even more easily used merely for pleasure than for breeding (at least a man is tied to his woman by their progeny, whereas "love" feelings come and go). In reality neither the necessity of children nor the compulsion of erotic love is universally sufficient to break through masculine egotism. For man to consider his mate an equal, faith in fundamental human equality is needed. Some might build this faith on sentimentality, but Christian Faith is a much firmer basis.
5. One wonders how she would ever succeed in mounting such a stalagmite of a throne. These fixtures are certainly visually striking, but also completely impractical. They remind me of the doors of a well-to-do house I saw in Monterrey whose door handles were in their centers. The symmetry was visually appealing, but unhelpful for opening a heavy, wooden door.
6. A lecture David Mills gave at the International Institute for Culture Summer Seminar in Eichstatt, Bavaria, June 17-July 6, 2002: "Philip Pullman's Dark Materials" (July 1, 2002). Some of these insights were published: David Mills, "His Dark Witness," p. 23 sidebar to "Enchanting Children," Touchstone (December 2006), 19-26.
7. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 2nd ed. "Je parle espagnol à Dieu, italien aux femmes, française aus hommes et allemand à mon cheval." Evidently he was speaking to a man.
8. For whatever reason, this oration is absent from del Toro's original draft screenplay (available on the DVD).
Note: Took me long enough to come up with this one, didn't it? I hope it was worth the wait.