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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Civil Hands in Need of Purell: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

Let's see. What should I be doing right now? Cleaning, writing up a syllabus, getting my office in order so that I can stick to an informal resolution to work up there and keep my living room my living room . . . But I've got a crummy ear infection and haven't slept well in more than a week and I don't wanna. Instead, I shall inflict my thoughts about this movie, which turned out to be more Spanish Civil War and less Labyrinth than I'd anticipated, not that that's a bad thing.

Complete spoilers for Pan's Labyrinth follow.

For once, I don't think I can be blamed for paying insufficient attention and thus having the wrong expectations for the movie. The trailers most definitely emphasize the fantasy elements. I could also argue that Guillermo del Toro is better known for dealing in explicitly supernatural worlds (Hellboy, Blade II, which the ZK assures me was better than Blade, but then it would have to be, wouldn't it?), but I'm pretty sure that I thought Guillermo del Toro had directed King Arthur, which is a terrible thing to say about anyone. At any rate, I had no idea what the non-fantasy backdrop for this was.

For a movie that was about 20% what I expected and 80% news to me, I felt right at home, though. The story approaches the relationship between "real" and "fantasy" in much the same way that some of my favorite authors do. In particular, there are many elements here that are dear to Diana Wynne Jones's stories: An adolescent whose "real world" is in tatters finds him/herself embroiled in powerful and dangerous other-worldly goings on as well and the two bleed into one another.

The story is set in 1944, five years into Franco's Spain, and those darn Reds still aren't buying the hype. Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), in contrast, is a major stockholder in Franconian hype and is entrenched with his men in a mill house positioned to eliminate a particularly troublesome band of guerillas. He sends for his very pregnant, very ill, very trophy wife, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), on the grounds that his son must be born where his father is. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), Carmen's daughter from her first marriage to Vidal's tailor, accompanies her and is about as excited by the prospect of her displacement and her stepfather as he is about her.

On the journey to the mill house, Ofelia has her first encounter with the supernatural as she wanders into the woods during a stop. She spies an odd-looking stone and returns it to its rightful place as the eye a rough-hewn sculpture that is so weather beaten, it almost appears natural, rather than man made. As she slots the stone back into place, a bug very much like a Praying Mantis emerges. Delighted, Ofelia tells her mother that she saw a fairy, but Carmen attributes this to too much reading of the fairy stories that she insisted on bringing.

Upon arrival at the house, Vidal immediately assumes control of Carmen and makes his distaste for Ofelia clear. Ofelia, in turn, asserts her own identity even as she struggles to define herself. She defies Vidal's strictures and Carmen's weakness both consciously and unconsciously, in both childish and more mature ways.

As Vidal struts about, trying to impose social order and civility on the landscape, Ofelia finds herself drawn to the refuge of the stone labyrinth in the woods. As her mother deteriorates, mentally and physically, Ofelia explores relationships, both real and fantastic, with those who show her other ways of existing in the world. In the world of the mill house, she finds a kindred spirit and alternative role model (both in terms of gender and philosophy) in Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), a servant in the house who just happens to be aiding the guerrillas (her brother among them) in the hills. She also shapes the alternate reality of the labyrinth, literally transforming her insect friend into her notion of a fairy and herself into the lost princess of her favorite story.

She's an appealing heroine in a moving story, and del Toro is skilled at borrowing well-known tropes from fairy stories but keeping them fresh. For example, as Ofelia's princess identity is more than a typical child's dream retreat from a violent stepfather and submissive mother. Her nocturnal journeys strengthen and fortify her to go boldly through life at the mill house, keeping Mercedes secret, taking action to secure her mother's health even as she rebels the infantilized female role that her mother craves for both herself and Ofelia. Through it all, del Toro manages to keep Ofelia very real. She is not impossibly good or particularly wise beyond her years, but neither is she completely mired in the narcissism of childhood.

The blend of the child Ofelia has been with the woman she's trying to create is beautifully handled, both visually and narratively. In one scene, Carmen gives Ofelia a dress she's made for a dinner party Vidal is throwing. It's a lovely emerald green Alice in Wonderland affair (complete with white apron and patent leather Mary Janes). Having allowed herself to be literally dolled up, she slips out to the woods to complete the first of three quests given to her by the faun to secure her reentry to her kingdom. This involves her crawling through the muck into the heart of a dying fig tree. As an afterthought, she removes the party dress and hangs it on a tree branch. In her slip, the beginnings of her physical development are clear (without at all being overtly sexualized), and it's obvious how silly a dress it is for someone her age. Distanced from her mother's mores and their physical trappings, she is brave and clever as she achieves her goal on her own terms.

True to her age and genuine affection for her mother, though, her rebellion does not come without regret and self blame. When she goes to her book to learn her second task, the pages fill with blood. She hesitates before reopening it and again when her mother cries out to her for help. In that moment, she is clearly tempted to retreat into childhood, and for time she remains inert in both worlds. But ultimately, she moves forward, pointedly living in both and shouldering her responsibilities in both. It's only after the faun gives her a possible remedy for her mother (a mandrake root to be kept in a bowl of fresh milk and, notably, fed with Ofelia's blood) that she agrees to perform the second task.

It's on the second quest that it becomes clear that Ofelia's entire identity is between worlds, not just between childhood and adult identity. She becomes able, literally, to create her own avenues of escape and bridges between extremes. As she more overtly rejects the veneer of social niceties with which Vidal masks his violence, she takes a conscious step closer to the natural world and to folk identity, aligning herself with the guerillas. In contrast, Vidal sees nature as an impediment: It both hides the guerrillas and provides a literal shield for them and for his men as they try to take as much life as possible. Ok, I admit that the folk medicine metaphor is a touch on the hokey side, but the experiments in sacrifice that go along with it, some of which she fails rather spectacularly, make it work.

It's on the issue of sacrifice that the story stumbles a bit, though, and it's also, unfortunately, on this issue that it both begins and ends. Throughout, there is a strong distinction between those who demand sacrifice and those who make it. Vidal is a true fascist, demanding unquestioning loyalty and the surrender of the individual to his will and, more importantly, the will of Franco's Spain. Mercedes and the Doctor question whether their sacrifices are acceptable or meaningful when they are paired with lives of relative ease and comfort. And Carmen unwittingly gives her entire self over to Vidal, making the worst possible choices with the best of intentions to give her daughter what no one gave her, and ultimately to give her life (or to have it taken from her) for her son's. Even Vidal has inherited the legacy of his father who smashed his own watch so that his son would know the exact minute of his death and understand that death in the service of country is the only legitimate exit from this mortal plane.

Ofelia's third task is to bring her baby brother to the Faun. When she objects, the faun demands unquestioning compliance. We've all seen where this is going, right? The first item retrieved is a key, which allows her to retrieve a shiny, shiny knife from behind the back of the eyeless, BABY-EATING fiend, and now the faun wants the baby.

As the guerrillas raid the mill house, she drugs Vidal (who has just suffered a gruesome attack by Mercedes as she makes her escape after having been discovered to be the guerrillas' spy), and makes for the labyrinth with the baby in tow. There, the faun demands the blood of an innocent to open the portal to Princess Moanna's kingdom. She refuses and finds Vidal at her back. Out of choices and unable, this time to create her own means of escape, she wordlessly hands over the baby. Vidal shoots her and immediately gets his comeuppance as the guerrillas (plus Mercedes) block the exit from the labyrinth. He hands the baby to Mercedes and starts his big speech, a legacy from his father, about what they should tell his son about his death. Mercedes stops him and says the boy will never even know his name.

The bad guy dealt with, Mercedes rushes to Ofelia, cradling her body as her blood pours into the labyrinth. As she draws her last breaths, Ofelia sees herself entering a glorious royal court. Her mother sits at her father's right hand and congratulates her on passing the test, sacrificing her own life for the baby's. She urges her to take her title and the throne at her father's right hand.

And that, right there, is where I kind of call shennanigans on the movie. I'm not knocking the Pratchett approach to the afterlife. In fact, should any hang-y on-y bits survive this plane (something I emphatically do not believe will come to pass), I'm damned well going to insist on making up my eternal existence as I go along. But she's still quite pointlessly dead. And yeah, I get that a lot of other people have died in the course of this movie (uh, I probably should have noted earlier that this is a really disturbing, violent film. It's not particularly . . . graphic, except in a few instances, but not for the faint of heart, to be sure) and depressing lack of real ground gained or purpose imparted is deliberate. I'm supposed to object to her death, I know, but I object equally to the simplistic, childish "reward" that she crafts for herself in the wake of her most adult moment.

I'm not saying it negates what's good and thought-provoking and enjoyable about the film at all. I'm just saying that I resent the abrupt parting of ways with del Toro that I experienced in the last moments. Anyway, leaving aside a somewhat hokey ending, there's lots to enjoy visually and narratively in the movie. Just remember, it's got more Spanish Civil War than you bargained for, less labyrinth than you might've hoped for, and absolutely no David Bowie.

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