Of the handful of remaining films in Film 2019’s Phase One, Pan’s Labyrinth is the only one I have seen before and, magnificent film that it is, I associate it with a sense of shame. It was pressed upon me by my younger stepson, when we were still a family, because he’d seen it and loved it and wanted to share it with me. But I was stupidly resistant, a character flaw I’d carried most of my life, a reluctance to listen to the recommendations of others. It was a left-handed arrogance, I was the one who found the esoteric stuff, the out-of-the-way art or music or books, and it fed into the belief that if I hadn’t found it myself, it wasn’t worth finding.
I did end up watching the film, and I was fascinated by it, but I took so long getting round to it, long enough for his mother to tell me off about it, and it was a nail in the gradual estrangement that grew up between me and the family I’d found so fortuitously.
That’s not to be blamed upon the film, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro in 2006, under the original title of El laberinto del fauno, The Laabyrinth of the Faun (del Toro has since denied that the pivotal figure of the Faun is Pan). It’s a dark fantasy, the intrusion of a fairy-tale into a very real and horrible world, the two sides of the story intertwining. There’s been debate ever since as to whether the fantasy world is real or merely a fantasy in the mind of a very unhappy 10 year old girl in a situation she fears and hates, an escape from reality by an imaginative child, a reader devoted to fairy-tales and creating her own that exists only in her own mind.
I’m undecided, though the sequence of events and, particularly, the horrific yet redemptive ending, inclines me personally to the fantasy theory. del Toro has however stated that the story is real and that there are implanted clues to establish this.
The story is set in Spain, in 1944, roughly contemporary to the D-Day landings in Normandy. Spain is not part of the Second World War, having fought its own Civil War that ended in fascism’s victory five years earlier, only a handful of weeks before the declaration of War.
Franco and the Falangists have won, and set about ordering the country on an assumedly Christian basis, rejecting Red notions of equality as contemptible. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, until now better known as a comic actor) is in charge of exterminating rebels, the Spanish Maquis, in this unidentified, rural corner. He and his men are based at an old Mill.
En route to join him are his wife, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), heavily and sickly pregnant with their first child, whom Vidal has already determined will be a boy) and his stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, aged 11 at the time of filming). Ofelia appears not to even know Vidal at all, and is silently and stubbornly resistant to Carmen’s wish that she call him Father. Ofelia’s father was a tailor.
But the film has begun with the recounting of a fairy-tale, of Princess Moanna, daughter of the King of the Underworld, who visits the human world, is blinded by the sun, loses her memory and lives and dies a human. Her father refuses to let go of the hope that her spirit will one day return, and builds portals in the form of labyrinths to faciltate this. One last one, overgrown and derelict, stands by the Mill.
The imaginative Ofelia startles an outsized stick insect that she believes is a fairy. At night, it it turns into an actual fairy, and guides her into the labyrinth, where Ofelia is recognised as the spirit of Moanna by the Faun (Doug Jones under intensely heavy make-up, his voice dubbed by Pablo Adan). This is no Mr Tumnus kind of faun – the film appeared not long after the hollywood adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and makes for an interesting comparison – but rather an ancient, massive, almot terrifying figure, with an enormous head and great curled horns. There is nothing childish about this Faun.
In order to restore the kingdom, the Faun sets Ofelia three tasks (three, of course) to complete before the moon is full. First, she must retrieve a key from a giant toad that is poisoning the roots of an ancient, gnarled, dead tree. Then she must use the key to unlock a chamber that holds a golden dagger, which is guarded by a sleeping, eyeless, Pale Man (Jones again), who eats children. Ofelia succeeds but disobeys the Faun’s order not to eat anything from the sumptuous banquet: for two grapes she loses two fairies, and is rejected by the Faun, who nevertheless returns as thereal world approaches its crisis, to offer her the third and final task, to steal her baby brother and bring him into the centre of the labyrinth, where the Faun produces the dagger: the blood of an innocent is required.
But each of these steps are set against the real world. Vidal, we quickly see, is an unredeemable monster, as bad as anything we might see underground. He is Fascism embodied in one person, cold, committed, brutal, demanding absolute obediance. He is intent on exterminating the rebels, all rebels, seeing them as a poison in the blood of the new, clean Spain. He holds no value for human life, in which the local dignitaries agree. The Priest, a good Catholic, states casually that as God has already saved their souls, it is unimportant what happens to their bodies.
But there is resistance going on under Vidal’s nose. The Maquis have a mole at the Mill in Mercedes (Maribel Verdu, of Y Tu Mama, Tambien), the household head, sister to the Maquis leader Pedro. Doctor Ferreira (Alex Angulo), who is there to take care of the sickly Carmen, who develops a serious and life-threatening fever, is also sympathetic, and supplies antibiotics, not to mention an impromptu amputation of a gangrenous leg.
The two worlds mix through Ofelia who, when her mother is stricken by what firstly looks like a miscarriage, accepts the help of the Faun, placing a mandrake root in a bowl of fresh milk to which she’s added two drops of her own milk under Carmen’s bed. The mandrake flexes and cries like a baby, and Carmen begins to recover magically.
That is, until Vidal finds the superstitious rot under the bed, roars his disgust for this unChristian affair this contemptible play at magic. He throws the mandrake root into the fire, where it writhes and burns, like a human baby. And Carmen, equally horrified at her daughter’s clinging to childish ideas of magic, collapses in agonies.
Ferreira cannot treat her: Vidal has coldly shot him for aiding a captured rebel by euthanising him. The Captain has already issued instructions to the Doctor, long before it becomes an issue, that in any choice, it is the baby who must be saved, who will preserve his line and carry his name forward. And it is the baby who survives.
But though we may hate Vidal by every decent instinct in us, nerves set on edge by the Captain’s lack of anything we recognise as humanity, he is not a stupid man, and his arrogance is not based on complacency. He identifies Mercedes as the rebel’s liaison, and prepares to torture her for information. Yet he’s underestimated her, as a mere woman, for she carries a paring knife rolled into the waistband of her apron, andshe uses it to cut her bonds, and to stab him in the back and the shoulder before slicing open his mouth.
Mercedes runs, Lieutenant Garces and his men pursue on horseback but are ambushed and slaughtered by the Maquis, surrounding the Mill and intent on attacking, on killing all the Army. And this is the moment when the Faun sends Ofelia/Moanna to fetch her baby brother.
Sensibly, she doses Vidal’s drink with several times the prescription for her dead mother’s sleeping draught, but despite the evidence, he resists unconsciousness, and follows her into the labyrinth. Though it opens for her and closes for him, he follows her to the centre. He cannot see the Faun, nor hear what it proposes, and so he doesn’t understand that Ofelia is refusing to allow her baby brother, Vidal’s son, to be harmed, no, not even to the extent of two drops of blood. The Faun tells her she has failed.
Vidal steps forward. He takes his son from her. Without thought or emotion, he shoots the little girl through the stomach. Outside the labyrinth, the Maquis and Mercedes wait. Vidal is the last survivor. He is determinedto die a brave man, like his father, the General. He hands the baby to Mercedes and asks her to tell him that his father died a brave man. Mercedes’ answer, bitter, angry, hating, is apposite: the boy will not eveen know his father’s name. Pedro shoots Vidal in the face, killing him.
Inside the Labyrinth, at its centre, Mercedes and the Maquis find Ofelia, still breathing but dying by inches. Mercedes, who is more important to the film than my account has made her seem, who has become a surrogate mother to Ofelia, an active mother intent of supporting her and rescuing her, as opposed to Carmen, a defeated woman, encaged and more concerned with pleasing her captor, Mercedes kneels beside the child and sobs bitterly as she dies.
And is reborn, in a reborn Underworld, Princess Moanna, who has fulfilled her task, who has spilt her own blood rather than let that of an innocent be spilled, who has done what demanded of her and been returned to her real parents, the King who is her real Father, the Queen who is Carmen. A voiceover tells us the end of Princess Moanna’s tale, of a long, fair and just rule, that she left but little and quiet traces of her time in the human world, visible onlyto thosewho know where to look – such as a flower budding on a long dead tree that no longer has a toad at its root.
This finale reminds me very much of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, and how the surgeon who successfully completes Peter Carter’s brain operation is also the Judge in his Trial before the Court of Heaven. But it’s also the biggest single factor in the film that inclines me to seeing the Underworld as a product of Ofelia’s imagination. Everything has gone wrong. Her mother is dead. The man she was encouraged to look upon as, and call, father, has coldly shot her. In her final moments, as the blood runs out of her, what other escape has she to bear her final moments with than the dream that what she did was redemptive, and her blood be the key to renewal, and that she is becoming immortal. It’s Brazil, and Jonathan Price’s escape, before the giant heads of Michael Palin and Peter Vaughan appear in the sky.
Though del Toro says otherwise, and he should know, though there are moments in the film that suggest that magic is real and tangible, this sad, heart-breaking conclusion is what impresses itself on me. It wasn’t real, it was never real at all. It was just a young and imaginative girl creating a fantasy of escape for herself, anxious that magic exist in a place of bitter and sordid conflict that held nothing of a future for her. And it led her to her death, not that it was likely she would survive too long. Not with Captain Vidal, not him.
I’m sorry, J, I should have listened to you and watched that DVD as soon as you produced it for me. You were right and I was wrong and I wish I could tell you that, even now. I wish I could hope to one day watch this film without thinking of my stupidity. I don’t think I ever will.