Spain, 1944. The Civil War has ended. Hidden throughout the Spanish mountains lie men who continue to resist the Fascist regime. Military posts have been established to exterminate the Resistance.
Some time long before, in a realm where lies and pain do not exist, the daughter of a King dreams of a human world, and into such a world she then escapes. Over time, the memory of her identity and origin fade, and eventually she experiences death. Knowing, however, that the soul of his daughter will take another body, the King awaits her return to the human world, and portals all over the human world are opened to allow for her return to his Kingdom.
These two stories intersect in Ofelia, the step-daughter of Captain Vidal (a commander of a military post aimed at exterminating the nearby Resistance). An avid reader of fantasy, Ofelia’s imagination allows her to escape from her cruel surroundings, and in the realm to which she escapes, she encounters a labyrinth. There, a creature tells Ofelia that she has been led to the last of the portals which was opened to allow for her return to her father.
The year 2006 was a truly remarkable one for Mexican film. Film critic Roger Ebert has suggested that we start talking about the era of the New Mexican Cinema, and what he has in mind are the films of three Mexican friends and contemporaries. In 2006, Alfonso Cuaron adapted P.D. James’ Children of Men, Alejandro González Iñárritu directed Babel, and alongside Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, we easily have there of the best films of our young new century.
A lovely scene in Pan’s Labyrinth has Ofelia lying in bed with her increasingly pregnant mother, listening to her mother talk about being lonely. Experiencing some physical pain (her unborn-child is “at it again”), the mother asks Ofelia to tell her yet-to-be-born brother a story. The young girl gently taps her mother’s stomach as if to get the brother’s attention, puts her head to her mother’s stomach and whispering mi hermano, mi hermano (my brother, my brother), she begins to tell him a story. Were this touching scene to end here, the viewer still would have experienced some relief from the cruelty which surrounds Ofelia, and yet instead the camera descends into darkness, and then into the glowing sac in which Ofelia’s brother is peacefully afloat. This remarkable scene is the sort that leaves those more eloquent among us simply stammering for words.
Moving from such a remarkable scene (and there are a number of others), the role of choice in a person’s obedience and dissent, and the relationship of such to the violence of Pan’s Labyrinth is, I think, worthy of some engagement.
We know you are not here by choice, Captain Vidal is told by a supper guest. If the guest has in mind the Captain’s being assigned to a rather insignificant military post, he has misread the Captain. You’re wrong about that, the Captain corrects, before explaining what he hopes to acheive in his assignment. To those present, those who have chosen to ally themselves to the Fascist cause rather than to the Resistance, the Captain states: We are all here by choice.
By contrast, good characters such as Doctor Ferreiro or those in the Resistance have really only one choice. When the Doctor, for example, attempts to persuade a member of the Resistance to cross the border into safety and be with the woman he loves, the man responds I’m staying here. There’s no choice.
In another instance, Captain Vidal orders the Doctor to keep a tortured man from dying so that more information can be extracted from him. Rather than obeying and prolonging the tortured man’s life, the Doctor administers a drug which hastens the death of the man.
Why did you do it? the Captain asks.
It was the only thing I could do.
No. You could have obeyed me.
I could have, but I didn’t.
It would have been better for you and you know it. Why didn’t you obey me?
The Doctor responds: To obey — just like that — for the sake of obeying, without questioning. That’s only something people like you can do. Those good in Pan’s Labyrinth do not lack freedom. When they say that there’s no choice, or it was the only thing I could do, what they are saying is that once convinced by their conscience of what is good, there is really only one way to respond. Despite the ways in which an external authority might hope to call a person into submission, the internal authority of one’s own conscience is what should guide a person’s action. The Victorian John Henry Newman once wrote that the conscience is “a messenger from him who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil,” and Pan’s Labyrinth models characters unwilling to act against this voice.
I wonder, however, about the extent to which what the viewer is told might differ from what he or she is shown. This observation is not unique to me, and perhaps others are more certain of its implications than I, but it seems to me that what the viewer is being shown tempers the extent to which we believe what we are being told. Before we know much about Captain Vidal, the viewer experiences him repeatedly smashing a bottle into the face of a man his soldiers have caught trespassing. This brief (but graphic) scene determines the way in which the viewer thereafter will experience Captain Vidal.
After initially viewing Pan’s Labyrinth, my only issue with the experience was the extent to which Captain Vidal had emerged as particularly one-dimensional. I experienced him as not someone who does evil, but as someone who, quite simply, is evil. This experience of Captain Vidal was unsatisfactory because it flew in the face of claims like Guillermo Arriaga’s “as a writer you have to love your characters, even if you hate them. If you love the characters you hate, you’ll make them believable,” or Graham Greene’s “when you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corner of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.” How could such a beautifully imaginative film like Pan’s Labyrinth evidence such a lack of imagination when it came to the presentation of one of its characters?
This question betrays a superficial viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth. Captain Vidal’s brutal act of violence manipulates the viewer. It overshadows all those moments prior and all those moments after which give the impression that Captain Vidal is, in fact, a member of the human race. We see him listening to music, shaving, and cleaning his boots. We see him reconstructing an old watch, identifying his hopes for the sort of Spain in which his son will one day live, and we see his concern, perhaps even love, for his wife.
Despite numerous instances of the humanity of Captain Vidal, the horrific violence we see him commit draws the viewer into an emotional satisfaction at the potential (and actual) violence committed against him. I wonder if, deep down, Guillermo del Toro has communicated how self-righteously we might, one one hand, buy in to what we have been
about the centrality of conscience, but how easily, on the other hand, we are swayed by what we have
seen; how despite what we have heard about the importance of the conscience, that conscience can nonetheless be muted to the violence committed against a person who, we have been shown, is a supposedly worthy victim of such violence
. Further, if the voice of our conscience can so easily be ignored, how different are we from Captain Vidal who has succeeded in muting his own?
The musical score for
can be heard