Saturday, December 30, 2006

Literary Criticism of Pan's Labryinth

I dedicate this entry to Jeremy Roby for his tips on writing movie reviews

Pan's Labryinth has gotten billed as "a fairy tale for adults." The billing does the movie justice. Do not take kids to this movie. It doesn't have excessive gore or nudity in it, but it has a good level of heartless violence, a scary demon-like creature that could cause nightmares and the level of depression-inducing content ranks quite high. The movie comes off as a theatrical masterpiece, though.

Set at a 1944 command garrison in Franco-controlled Spain, the movie tells the story of a young girl who has the soul of the Underworld Faerie (I'm throwing in the Faerie part) Princess and her attempt to prove that she has it. It also involves her desire to get away from the command garrison and her cruel new stepfather. Overall, it proves quite complex compared to most cinematic fare, with the multiple story lines that deftly and skillfully interweave, making political statements (which, from light Wikipedia research, probably proves quite intense for the Spanish), exploring the human condition, providing a variety of believably compelling horrible and beautiful characters and creating a relatively simple fantastic world.

The most striking aspect in the film comes from juxtaposing the fantastic world and the harsh mimetic real world. Brutalness exists in the fantastic world, but it comes in a different form. In the real world, it comes from humanity; while in the fantastic, from the animal and demonic. For some reason, as much as the animal and demonic may strike fear in the audience, it feels different than human cruelty and harshness. The animal and demonic brutality has an intuitive justice and order. Human brutality, however, destroys any kind of sense and meaning.

Humans have the capacity for great good but also for great evil. The girl's stepfather provides an extreme example of evil and harshness, killing and torturing near indiscriminately for Franco's nation and self glory. He has been stationed at the garrison to flush out the guerillas in the woods and destroy them, with no concern as to their humanity. Whatever it takes, he will do it. They are seen as a complication to the unification of Spain, in which citizens will receive their justified due, as long as they agree to what they are justified. And in the eyes of this captain and the leaders of Spain, their justification due could be death or torture, all for the "unification" of Spain.

Then we have Ofelia, the Underworld Faerie Princess. She embodies innocence. A powerless child in the world of power struggling, enchanted by fantastic fairy tales and looking for a simple, loving environment of support and care. In the mimetic real world parts of the movie, she becomes vulnerable to something that Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings says. I can't remember it exactly, but it goes along the lines of those who don't know how to use the sword can still die by the sword. Ofelia, however, doesn't seek power or glory, but simply safety and escape from the harsh human world, in which humanity has never seen an end. At the least, some humans have always seeked power, taking it at whatever cost and projecting it onto their legacy. Becoming the Underworld Faerie Princess will become her escape from the horrible world of humanity.

These two stories, Ofelia trying to prove her soul-right and the evil stepfather killing and torturing the enemies of Franco near-indiscriminately, advance seperately most of the time but come together in a gripping and bittersweetly just climax. They both develop and indirectly comment on each other for the audience. Ofelia and the fantasy world enchants and strikes fear, but in a meaningful way. The real world and the stepfather, however, terrorizes the audience without meaning. Ofelia strives for safety and order, of sorts, while the stepfather destroys, kills and tears down. Franco apparently will create order afterward and bring prosperousness on the people of Spain, but at what cost? Will Spain make a worthwhile place to live after the loss of humanity required for Franco's unity and nation? And since the Spain of today still grips with the legacy of Franco's regime and the whole world also dealing with all types of powermongers, can they translate the warning Guillermo del Torro tries to communicate about humanity?

Coming from a perspective of ignorance when it comes to the structure of fairy tales, traditional and Disneyfied, I feel that Pan's Labryinth reminds the audience about the harshness in the real world and the importance of fairy tales to synthetically create sense and meaning. In the real world, especially for those without power, things happen to most people because of depressing existential circumstance. Fairy tales, however, provide the double roles of helping an audience to escape from that unjust world into one that has reasonable rules of cause and effect (even when breaking rules of nature) while also providing hope that a just world can exist. Just as human minds can conceive of horrible atrocities, they can also imagine a world of meaning that makes sense. And if they make one world in which they can conceive, then they must be able to bring the other world of just relationships into existence.

Pan's Labryinth may not convince us that this other fantastic realm exists, but it holds a mirror up to humanity. With excellent acting, special effects, cinematography and every storytelling cinematic technique it used, it expertly shows us the many shades of human capability for evil, power and the helplessness that it can create. . .even if it may not tell the whole story (as in that every side of a war may have had the capacity to participate in atrocity). The presentation of drama embroiled Spanish politics that have occurred in the real world raises awareness about a horrible historical situation that hasn't received appropriate coverage, at least, not in the American public school system. In the end, however, it shows the moral depravity of war waged by powermongers, the destruction of meaning by war and powermongers and, on some implicit level, the complicity of those not in command.


Redag said...

Benicio del Toro does not equal Guillermo del Toro I am afraid. :)

The_Lex said...

No, no he does not. Thanks for pointing it out! ;b

Allan said...

Regarding this review of Pan's Labyrinth, I agree with most of what's said. I'm glad I waited until seeing the movie before reading the review. There's a point raised in another review that I think touches on some of your points. Spanish high modernismo is the artistic POV of the movie, and for modernismo the artistic act of creating a fantastic landscape is an act of political protest, resistance and defiance. I'm most likely interpretering this wrong, but it's how I understood another review of Pan's Labyrinth.