October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
June 4, 2007
Review: Pan’s Labyrinth. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Warner Brothers, 2006. 120 minutes.
Superman: comic made movie. The staples of any superhero movie include: (obviously) a super hero, an ever-present evil force, and enough drama to carry through for at least a sequel, and preferably a Number 3. Such trilogies build expectation for the “final battle to the death,” a concluding scene that resolves the desire to see another movie, since what is good has conquered the dark enemy. There is something fundamentally child-like to this story, a moral narrative reinforced by the fact that as children absorb, they mimic, reenacting the overcoming of Superman’s woes. We each have our own stories of tying a cape around our necks in an attempt to fly off the side of the chicken coop, only to be slightly disappointed as gravity fails to provide a cushioned mat for the inevitable fall. This minor set-back is compensated, though, by the imagination, that force which allows children to still arrive to the aid of those needing to be rescued. The task of fighting the dark side is straightforward, influenced by the acute observation of children that the battle between good and evil rages in the real world as well. The reality of the two presences only becomes more defined as one’s exposure to the world is broadened. While some age more slowly, through the controlled exposure maintained in stable family structures, war and poverty are two harsh realities that force children to grow up faster, to understand the stakes of the battle more quickly. So then, what becomes the content of a child’s fantasy world that has been overexposed to the real?
Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale relaying the collision of good and evil with a twist: that one cannot exist without the other, a film missing the tagline: “and they all lived happily ever after.” For once the cost of goodness is felt, shaking the foundations of absolution. Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie holds to the simple, often overlooked point that the two forces are always simultaneously present. And their partnership is not always a duel, a survival of the fittest. But as they interweave, Pan’s Labyrinth tragically reveals the beauty missed in most Disney movies. This is a story of how good resists being quenched by overwhelming cruelty, as the two continue to coexist. Righteousness has not immediately defeated wickedness, but it nurtures hope to continue its fight to be triumphant.
Del Toro interweaves a fairy tale throughout the film to contrast the two forces, seen in the two main characters. As the story develops, though, the distinction becomes foggy as fantasy and reality converge. The protagonist, Ofelia, is a young girl full of innocence and compassion, living most vibrantly in a fantasy world she has created, influenced by the fairy tales she constantly reads. The film opens with her en route, accompanying her pregnant mother, to join her stepfather, who is the midst of leading the nationalists against the rebels during the Spanish Civil War. Because he wants his son to be born in his presence, he ignores the ramifications of bringing his family to the battlefield. Unable to absorb the cringing reality she is facing, Ofelia uses imagination to be her needed outlet.
Enter Villain: meet her stepfather, the cruel, haughty Captain whose charisma makes even empathy recoil. Never in the film is the audience given a chance to feel the slightest pity towards him, to wonder how he became this way. The solid hatred he emits on screen soon transfers to one’s own opinion of him, to hate him in return, to be as merciless towards his character as he is towards humanity. Despite his disapproval of her love for fairy tales, Ofelia creates one in which she finds herself an active participant. She is greeted by the faun, Pan, who sets her out on three quests to prove her hidden royalty. The first is simple, endearing even, as she takes off her beautiful new dress to retrieve a key from a mud-sucking overgrown toad. Meanwhile, worried for her weakening pregnant mother, Pan instructs Ofelia to place a mandrake root in a bowl of milk under her mother’s bed, each day adding drops of her own blood, assuring that this would protect not only her mother, but the unborn child as well. The captain discovers the mass under the bed and as he throws it into the fire, the line separating the two worlds diminishes. Ofelia’s fantasy world is no longer void of the captain’s brooding influence. Urgency motivates her to complete her next two tasks.
Prior to her second quest, she is warned to not disturb anyone or eat anything she comes across. Ofelia walks innocently into a room where a hairless monster sleeps, face down at the head of a banqueting table. The room gives off an eerie undertone, with pictures on the walls of children being eaten and thrown into ovens, as well as faint sounds of distant torture. She disobeys her command, plucking a luscious grape, savoring it while the ogre comes alive, grabbing his eyes off a plate and fixing them into his hands to see his next potential victim. In this moment, Ofelia has left an innocent, enchanted world. What once seemed a beautiful escape from the Captain has become polluted. Her mythical world also literally became an escape for the viewer as each scene with the Captain becomes more squeamish, more unbearable, sending one cringing to the bottom of her seat in anticipation of another. At this point in the film, we are no longer so secure.
Imaginary worlds are created to escape what is unbearable, and while the insufferable reality of Pan’s Labyrinth is quite obvious, Ofelia has not escaped to a world where she is merely an undiscovered princess. As a way of having control in the depravity of her situation, she takes on three daunting quests, well beyond her years. She is not haunted with nightmares of an overgrown, mud-sucking toad or an eyeless hairless child-eating creature. So then what poisons her make-believe storyline? Ofelia has been exposed to the cruelty of the world yet determines to not be overcome by it. She understands, maybe more than I do, sitting in a café, having lived a relatively protected life, that freedom from oppression comes at the cost of sacrifice. Her sacrifice begins with a simple pinprick of her blood to the milk-soaked mandrake root to save her dying, laboring mother. But as that hope is stripped from her, Ofelia becomes unwavering in her quest to be reunited with both her parents. I think it’s called hope seasoned with courage to take on the faith that she demonstrates when she steals her baby brother from the watchful eye of the Captain, risking her own life. Was she aware that her present life was unable to produce any kind of lasting joy?
Perhaps my desire to join Ofelia on her mission stems from a common story about justice: good things are stored for the good, the evil are rightly punished. It’s what seems to sum up the intuitive world view of those who understand the world to be full of depravity yet still hold to hope. In so many ways I wanted to believe that perhaps Pan the faun was a real character, that only those who really saw life could magically see him. Ofelia was the true honest pure being, incapable of being influenced by the villainous acts of the Captain. Consider the mandrake root she places beneath her mother’s bed. As long as she keeps it in the milk with her blood her mother’s health seems to stabilize, but as soon as it was thrown into the fire was it coincidence that her mother turned for the worse? It may have been superstitious for an educated adult to think that the imaginary action had any influence on the biology of birth, but I still want to believe that the imaginary was creeping beyond: Ofelia’s world was overpowering that of the Captain. We choose to believe what we want, as Ofelia did. Is creating a real-life fantasy a conscious choice of contributing to the beauty and sanctity of life in the only way possible, allowing good to somehow shine? Is it a measure of our hope in a depraved situation?
Sheree is a recent transport to Seattle who has made more money knitting than from her theology degree.