It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” owes at least a nod of recognition to Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The first moments of the movie make clear that things may not end well for its protagonist Ofelia, a young, dreamy girl played with extraordinary assuredness by twelve year old Spaniard Ivana Baquero.
But Pan’s Labyrinth is different from “Owl Creek Bridge” in just how the world of imagination that Ofelia inhabits coexists with the grim world beyond — in this case, Franco’s Spain not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Her fairy tale quest — complete with the archetypal three challenges, a failure, a redemption, and a final triumph — is enthralling in its own right and a wondrous, illuminating counterpoint to the real world she, her mother, and her comrades endure. As a result, Pan’s Labyrinth becomes both a spooky, gorgeous fantasy and a serious meditation on power, evil, and resistance.
[Warning: spoilers follow.]
I had not known that after the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, some people fought on against Franco, all but forgotten by the rest of the world as it descended into war as well. Centered in the mountains of northern Spain — Galicia, Asturias, the Pyrenees — that resistance was hopeless but valiant and persistent, with fighting lasting beyond the end of World War II, and flaring weakly as late as the 1950s and 1960s. (For its part, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in the summer of 1944 — hiding in a cave, guerrillas read a tattered newspaper account of the Normandy landings.) In his acclaimed history of the Spanish Civil War, “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor writes:
Those who had taken to the hills, ‘los hombres de la sierra’, having escaped from prison or labour battalions, formed small, scattered groups which could not communicate effectively. Yet the first examples of resistance to nationalist conquest had started from the very beginning of the civil war. In Galicia, where so many had escaped the brutal Falangist repression, groups had formed in the hills, especially the Sierra do Eixe. [...] Most of those in the south were annihilated in 1937, but in the north the struggle continued until the end of the war and beyond. When the Asturias front had collapsed in 1937, over 2,000 soldiers fled to the mountains and the nationalists needed to deploy fifteen tabors of regulares and eight battalions of infantry for many months hunting them down.*
This is the job — even the calling — of Vidal, the Franquist capitan in the movie. Del Toro is excellent at diagnosing him with a few economical shots (and Sergi Lopez is excellent at portraying him): Vidal impatiently glances at his watch as his new wife and stepdaughter make a late arrival; he vigorously polishes his gleaming boots; he admires himself while shaving with a straightedge razor; he meticulously repairs a shattered watch; he revels in machismo and confrontation, he forces himself to disdain pain or fear.
And he’s a monster. While it’s clear right away he’s not going to be a nice dad, he’s more fully introduced to the audience by brutally killing a peasant and his son in the mistaken belief that they’re partisans. (After he leaves the murder scene, another diagnosis: his lieutenants’ eyes meet, and one lifts an eyebrow and exhales a tiny little “puh” as in, “he’s a psychopath, but what can you do?”)
Here and elsewhere, Del Toro’s connection to the horror and comics genre provide this movie with a distinctive visual style. I lack a vocabulary for it myself, so I’ll call it the “wordless ‘reveal’ panel” I’ve seen in graphic novels like Maus — a symbolic, stylish still life or portrait that’s emblematic of the conflicts in the story: the captain slashing his reflection in a mirror, a guerilla leader appearing from nowhere in the woods after the soldiers give up their pursuit.
Del Toro has certainly created one of the most unsettling nightmare/horror sequences I’ve ever seen. Ofelia is given a piece of magic chalk to draw a door ‘anywhere she likes’; once she goes through the door, she’s warned not to partake of a sumptuous banquet she’ll see, but to simply get a treasure and return. When she opens the door she’s drawn, she finds the banquet all right — with a catatonic, pale ogre seated at the head of the table, its eyes on the table in front of him, paintings all around depicting it slaughtering and devouring babies. It is hideous, pure, blind, grasping evil — and it will not remain sightless or motionless for long.
Given that this scene is interlaced with a second one in which Vidal introduces a stuttering, terrified prisoner to the torture tools he’ll be reduced with — within the same walls that Ofelia has magically tunneled to her own confrontation with evil — one sees the outlines of Del Toro’s views. Power hoards, love spends; power torments, crushes, and discards, while innocence sacrifices; systems demand obedience and get it, for the most part; rare individuals choose freedom and honor, even at the cost of their lives.
And the allegories and fantasies of the story are important in making those points. I watched the movie The Illusionist a few months ago, and although I liked it, I still felt I liked the movie I thought I had early on better than the one I eventually got. Unlike that movie, Pan’s Labyrinth wastes no effort explaining its illusions, much less explaining them away. Rather, its fantastical, fairy tale elements just are; they explain and comment on its real world better than that world can itself.
I wonder if there’s another significance to the muddy, mossy, heathen elements of faun and fairy, Pan and labyrinth. In a story of innocence buying innocent life at the price of its own, set in Spain and told by a Mexican filmmaker, one might have expected mystic, ecstatic Christianity rather than the pagan allusions Del Toro uses. But the Catholic Church was part of the apparatus of oppression in Franco’s Spain — collaborating in censorship, monitoring who did and did not show up for Mass, and unabashedly celebrating Franco’s victory despite the many Spaniards who did not. Beevor writes:
On 31 March  Franco’s armies reached their ultimate objectives. ‘Lifting our hearts to God,’ ran Pope Pius XII’s message of congratulation to Franco, ‘we give sincere thanks with your Excellency for the victory of Catholic Spain.’*
As the movie portrays, economically as ever, the Catholic Church sat at the well-laden dinner table with the Franquist captain, murmuring that one ration card per family ought to be enough. I found another item in Beevor’s book that seems germane to Del Toro’s movie. One Major Antonio Vallejo Nagera, a professor of psychiatry, concluded that
…the only way to prevent the racial dissolution of Spanishness was the removal of children from suspect parents to be schooled in nationalist values. In 1943 there were 12,043 children taken from their mothers and handed over to the Falangist Auxilio Social, to orphanages and to religious organizations. Some of these children were passed on for adoption to selected families, a pattern followed thirty years later in Argentina under the military dictatorship there.*
As viewers will see, at least this one despicable, miserable bit of history is turned on its head in Del Toro’s movie.
At the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale narrator speaks of humans leaving “small traces of our time on earth — visible only to those who know where to look.” Del Toro, in remembering the valor of those who resisted Franco’s regime, has shown moviegoers where to look. For that alone, he deserves thanks. To do it so beautifully and so imaginatively, he and his collaborators deserve admiration and applause.
* ‘Los hombres de la sierra’ — Chapter 37, “The Unfinished War,” p. 421. Pope Pius message — Chapter 34, “The Collapse of the Republic,” p. 397. Children taken — Chapter 35, “The New Spain and the Franquist Gulag,” p. 407. All page numbers from the paperback edition of “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor, 1982, 2006.
UPDATE, 2/20: Other reviews: Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post writes, “See it, and celebrate that rare occasion when a director has the audacity to commit cinema,” and Jim Emerson at RogerEbert.com calls the movie “one of the cinema’s great fantasies.”