Altruism overcomes Spanish Civil War horror

Pan’s Labyrinth, 114 minutes. Rating: MA. Director: Guillermo Del Toro. Starring: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Doug Jones. Website 

Altruism overcomes Spanish Civil War horrorIf there’s one thing you can say about Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, it’s that his best films are difficult to pigeonhole.

Take 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, which adopted the conventions of a classic ghost story and weaved them into what is, essentially, a tragic reflection on the Spanish civil war. Then there’s 2004’s Hellboy, a character-driven fantasy epic that fused large-scale superhero antics with Lovecraftian horror and lashings of dry humour.

In Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), Del Toro again draws upon the civil war for both his narrative and thematic backdrop. This time, however, he uses elements of nightmarish fairytale to augment what is a dark historical drama. Set during the early Franco era, the film is subtle and deeply disturbing; simultaneously an horrific fantasy and an anti-fascist polemic.

Youthful heroine Ofelia’s (Baquero) beloved mother, Carmen (Gil), is heavily pregnant and incapacitated by illness, which leaves Ofelia defenseless against the menace of her sadistic stepfather, Capitán Vidal (López).

So when she encounters a grotesque faun (Jones) in a cavern beneath the labyrinth in the grounds of Vidal’s homestead, it comes as a fearsome but almost welcome diversion. Ofelia's interest is subsequently piqued when the faun, Pan, declares her to be a long-lost princess of his realm and sends her on a quest to reclaim her throne.

Meanwhile, as Franco’s army continues to sweep up the remnants of the resistance, Vidal becomes obsessed with eliminating a band of rebels who are living in the hills that surround his house.

Altruism overcomes Spanish Civil War horrorAn abrupt, extreme act of violence against a suspected conspirator quickly establishes him (and the fascism he represents) as the true monster of this tale. Vidal is at least as sinister as the giant toad, and the child-eating ghoul (Jones again) Ofelia must face in the course of her quest.

The film’s literary references are numerous; notably, Ofelia’s descent into the underworld recalls Alice’s plunge down the rabbit hole, while her encounters with Pan are reminiscent of Lucy Pevensie’s friendlier meetings with the Narnian faun, Mr Tumnus, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

But while the journeys made both by Alice and the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are about escaping reality and, ultimately, coming of age, Ofelia’s tale, while alluding to escapism, is for the most part a tragedy. It is a particular tragedy, however, in which true altruism—surely the antithesis of fascism—points the way to transcendence. Only by embracing altruism can Ofelia finally leave the horrors of her world behind and ascend to a better place.



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