Pan’s Labyrinth

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Pan’s Labyrinth2006. Guillermo del Toro, director. Mexico. 

The year is 1944 and the country is Spain. The Civil War has ended. Hidden throughout the mountains, however, lie men who continue to resist the Fascist regime. Military posts have been established to exterminate such resistance.

Some time ago, long before, in a realm where lies and pain do not exist, the daughter of a king dreams of a human world. Into that world she then escapes. Memory of her identity and origin fade and eventually she experiences death. Knowing that the soul of his daughter will enter another body, the king awaits her return to the human world. Portals across the human world are opened to allow for her return to his kingdom.

These stories intersect in Ofelia. She is the step-daughter of Captain Vidal who commands a post aimed at exterminating the Resistance. She is also an avid reader of fantasy and her imagination affords her an escape from her cruel surroundings. In the realm into which she escapes, she encounters a labyrinth. A creature tells her that this is the last of the portals opened for her by her other-worldly father.

A lovely scene has Ofelia lying beside her pregnant mother. Asked to tell her unborn brother a story, Ofelia gently taps the stomach of her mother. Having received his attention, Ofelia puts her head to her mother’s stomach. Whispering mi hermano mi hermano, she begins to tell him a story. The camera descends into darkness and then into the glowing sac in which her brother is peacefully afloat. It is a beautiful scene.

We know you are not here by choice, Captain Vidal is told by a dinner guest. You’re wrong about that, the Captain responds. He explains what he hopes to achieve in his modest assignment. To those present – those who have chosen to ally themselves to the Fascist regime – the Captain states: We are all here by choice.

Good characters, by contrast, feel more constrained. When a doctor attempts to persuade a member of the Resistance to cross the border into safety, 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. More information needs to be extracted from the dying man. Rather than obeying, and prolonging the life of the tortured man, the doctor administers a drug which hastens his death.

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 who are good, in Pan’s Labyrinth, do not actually lack freedom. Rather, once convinced by their conscience of what is good, only one right response exists. Despite ways in which an external authority might hope to call a person into submission, it is the internal authority of the conscience that guides action. The conscience has been described as the voice of “a messenger [who] speaks from behind a veil”, and Pan’s Labyrinth models characters unwilling to stand in opposition.

I wonder, though, about the relationship between what the viewer is told and what he or she is shown. It seems to me that what the viewer is shown tempers the extent to which the viewer will believe what he or she is being told. Before the viewer knows much of anything about Vidal, he or she experiences him repeatedly smashing a bottle into the face of a man caught trespassing. This brief but necessarily graphic scene determines the way in which the viewer will thereafter experience Vidal.

After initially viewing Pan’s Labyrinth, I had issue with the particularly one-dimensional Captain Vidal. I experienced him not as someone who does evil but rather as someone who is evil. This experience of Vidal was unsatisfactory to me. It disregarded the claim of Graham Greene that “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, I wondered, evidence such a lack of imagination in presenting Vidal?

Mine was a superficial viewingI had been manipulated by the brutality of Vidal. His treatment of the man caught trespassing overshadowed those few moments prior, and those following, which give the impression that Vidal is, in fact, a member of the human race. The viewer sees him listening to music, shaving and cleaning his boots. The viewer sees him reconstructing an old watch and hears him identify his hopes for the Spain in which his son will live. The viewer sees the concern of Vidal for his wife.

There are numerous manifestations, in fact, of the humanity of Captain Vidal. The horrific violence, however, which the viewer witnesses Vidal commit, draws the viewer into a sort of emotional satisfaction at the potential for violence to be committed against Vidal. I wonder if, here, del Toro is communicating something of how self-righteously a person might, on one hand, buy into what he or she has been told about the centrality of the conscience, but how easily, on the other hand, that same person can be swayed by what he or she has seen; how, despite what a person has heard about the importance of his or her conscience, that conscience can nonetheless be muted to the violence committed against one who, a person has been shown, is a supposedly worthy victim of such violence. Further, if the voice of that conscience can so easily be ignored, how different would such a person be from Captain Vidal who has succeeded in muting his own?

Pan’s Labyrinth has an MPAA rating of R for “graphic violence and some language”. 

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