Pan’s Labyrinth is the second film in which Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro has confronted the theme of fascism.
Like his earlier film, The Devil’s Backbone, this one deals with post-war repression in Spain under the dictator General Francisco Franco. And like that film, Pan’s Labyrinth sustains two parallel worlds of horror – one real and one imaginary – each informing the other with dread and urgency.
This latest work, however, emphasises fantasy over horror. There are fewer heart-stopping moments of terror, and its allusions are more literary than cinematic – the most obvious influence being the Argentinean short story writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Pan’s Labyrinth is also a more sentimental film than The Devil’s Backbone. Yet it remains a brilliant parable of fascism and resistance, told with stunning visual and dramatic flair.
The labyrinth of the film’s title is situated in northern Spain a few years after the civil war. It lies next to the enormous country house of Captain Vidal – a brutal fascist who rules the surrounding area on behalf of Franco.
Carmen, pregnant with Vidal’s son, has married him and moved in, along with her daughter Ofelia. The independent and imaginative Ofelia despises her new father and her new life of soul-crushing obedience.
She finds an escape in the labyrinth, which is guarded by Pan, a slightly sinister faun who assures her that she is the long lost princess of a magical kingdom whose inhabitants once lived freely and happily, but are now terrorised by a grotesque parasitical creature. Ofelia must complete three dangerous tasks in order to discover the truth.
This fantasia goes on in the middle of a literal war zone. A small number of intransigent rebels based in the woods continue to fight the Franco regime.
Vidal, while pursuing a war against the communist rebels, mistreats both Ofelia and her mother Carmen. He brags that his son will be brought into a “clean” world without “reds” who foolishly believe in human equality.
Vidal’s house is itself a battleground where every relationship is defined by domination and covert resistance. Its civilised facade is saturated with terror. Only Vidal can be entirely at home there, since everything and everyone in it is at his disposal. Every room doubles as a potential torture chamber or execution site.
The monsters that Ofelia encounters in the magical forest are metaphors for different aspects of fascism, and the world they inhabit is a beautiful Goyaesque horror – at least one of the film’s images is drawn directly from a Goya painting.
These parallels are reinforced by the fact that Ofelia’s fantasy adventures are intertwined with and occur in the same space as the traumatic reality in which she lives.
None of the monsters are as terrifying or grotesque as the would-be masters of humanity in their pristine uniforms, dealing out death, pain and servility. Yet they all impart something important about fascism.
Ofelia is berated by her mother for taking her fairy tales seriously, but the film insists on taking them seriously – they have a real importance, not only for Ofelia’s life, but also for those around her.
This raises the question of why we need synthetic monsters to understand anything about fascist Spain in 1944. Perhaps this is because they show us some aspects of reality that are not susceptible to literal depiction.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht famously suggested that simply putting a factory on a stage would not explain anything significant about capitalism.
Similarly, presenting a troop of fascist footsoldiers wouldn’t necessarily tell you anything important about how fascism works.
Nothing is self-evident in Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy world, but everything is richly suggestive.
It forces viewers to overcome common sense, and to reconsider what is meant by classic fairytale themes such as heroism and strength. It also allows you to perceive freshly the perversity and degradation of fascist life.
This film succeeds brilliantly in weaving together different genres to produce both a compelling fantasy story and an incisive political portrait of Franco’s Spain, moving and full of dark humour. There are monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth – but most of them are of the recognisably human variety.
Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro, goes on general release on Thursday of this week.
Richard Seymour runs the Lenin’s Tomb blog at leninology.blogspot.com