Film Review: Mystic Faith in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
The faith of the mystic is borne out of pain and suffering.
Having experienced the boundless tragedy that is human existence, we have often turned to the unseen and the magical to lead us in search of who we truly are inside. This alternative reality has been described and named in many different faith traditions, perhaps none better than the Islamic tradition where the name of the unseen world is called ‘Alam al-Mithal which the Persian mystics called Hurqalya.
The great scholar of Islamic mysticism Henri Corbin describes the splitting of worlds and the creation of a dialectic spiritual reality for the adept in the following manner:
The world of Hurqalya therefore contains both Heavens and an Earth, not a sensory Earth and Heavens, but Earth and Heavens in the state of Exemplary Images. Likewise, the Earth of Hurqalya also includes all the archetypal Images of individual beings and corporeal things existing in the sensory world. (from Corbin’s Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran, p. 79)
In Persian mysticism, borrowing heavily from ancient Gnostic traditions passed on through the Manicheans, the adept found a corrupt terrestrial world that existed in perfect dialectical relation to an unseen spiritual universe of manifold truth and beauty. The interzone between these two worlds was the Barzakh, an intermediate space of infinite blankness.
Within the realm of modern Spanish letters, the figure of Jorge Luis Borges has achieved a pre-eminence that is hard to match. There is almost no aspect of Spanish intellectual life that Borges has not touched. Borges was truly fascinated by the realms of the unseen and traced the existence of such worlds through the agency of books and letters. As was the case with the Kabbalists of old, Borges found a deeper reality in the narrative fictions of the past.
In classic stories like “Dr. Brodie’s Report,” “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and his various fantastical tales on the Library and the Archive – the place of the scholar, the individual responsible for unearthing the past – he assays the existence of a world tellingly structured by what he has famously called Labyrinths, those primordial mazes where humanity is tested by a cruel deity, places where the paganism of ancient Greece meets the morality of the Hebrew faith.
It is no exaggeration to mark Borges as the greatest Spanish literary figure since the Golden Age, as it is no overstatement to assert that Borges is one of the half-dozen most important Modernist writers in the Western tradition. The uses to which Borges put the ancient tradition was mediated by antecedent figures like Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville; all secular figures who found in the Gnostic faith something of great intellectual and cultural resonance.
The end to which the Gnostic faith has currently been placed resides in our love of ghost stories and Horror movies. The line from Poe and Melville to the films of Tod Browning, James Whale and, later on, Jacques Tourneur is one that Borges took great concern in tracing. The Horror film sets out a pure Gnostic realm: the protagonists are sucked into a vortex of unreality that carries with it the minutiae of ritual occultism.
In the famed collaborations of Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, the Hollywood tradition reached its apex in terms of the Horror genre. In the Lewton/Tourneur films – especially their masterpiece “I Walked with a Zombie” – there was an irresistible magnetic pull into the world of the occult. In a film of great importance that Lewton produced without Tourneur, “The Curse of the Cat People,” the interior spiritual world of children was illuminated with a precision and a sensitivity that has yet to be equaled.
That is, until the release of Guillermo Del Toro’s masterwork “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Del Toro has absorbed the influences of Poe, J.M. Barrie, Borges and Lewton/Tourneur in ways that allow him to construct a richly gripping fable that, for lack of a better term, fits into the post-Borgesian Hispanic world of “Magic Realism.”
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a film that tells two overlapping and dialectically opposed stories: A young girl named Ofelia, played with an astonishing range by newcomer Ivana Baquero (one of a number of extraordinary performances in a film of astonishing human resonance), is seen in the first images of the film with blood ominously dripping from her nose. We are immediately sent back to a mythical world of fables where a princess seeks to escape her father’s underground kingdom to experience the “real” world. The princess seeks to smell the fragrant flowers and feel the warm rays of the sun. She has elected to turn her back on the ideal world of the kingdom and her own immortality.
We viewers are warned that the soul of the princess might eventually find its way into another human body and ultimately back to the underworld kingdom. It is at this very moment that we are re-introduced to a fresh-faced Ofelia who is sitting in a car with her pregnant mother reading a book. Ofelia is an extraordinary character whose inner world has collapsed after the death of her father. Her mother has remarried a Captain in the Spanish military who has been charged with turning back the anti-Fascist rebels who roam the countryside.
It is 1944 and the Fascists have already defeated the rebels. Ofelia’s mother has sought to build the girl a better life after the death of her husband, a poor tailor. She has married a truly loathsome and evil man who typifies the malignant, corrupt culture of the ruling class. We see “El Capitan” torturing and killing on a whim – he embodies the standard variant of a Hollywood villain. In fact, the way in which Del Toro structures the film’s narrative is very much like that of Michael Curtiz in the historical epics that he made with Errol Flynn; “Pan’s Labyrinth” resembles in this sense a work like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” in its depiction of Good and Evil.
But there is far more to the movie than such a facile comparison.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” lays out a compelling political drama of those who refused to accept Fascist rule. We see the rebel sympathizers like the housekeeper Mercedes who serves El Capitan, but who is secretly providing succor to the rebels in the hills – among them is her brother Pedro. She is a dutiful servant who hangs on El Capitan’s every whim, but inside she burns with the passion of the revolutionary.
Once Ofelia and her mother come to the home of El Capitan, Mercedes’ sense of herself as a secret insurgent is set up as a parallel to the inner world of Ofelia.
Similar to the escape that is presented in “The Curse of the Cat People,” an escape that allows us to see the inner world of a lonely child who has been cruelly rejected by her peers, so too does Ofelia find herself alien to the world of El Capitan and his near-hysterical concern for the “son” that Ofelia’s mother is carrying – an unborn child who is more important to El Capitan than his new wife and her sad and lonely daughter; who he sees like all other women as merely a repository for his own needs and desires as a macho man.
Ofelia is presented as a child living in a world of, pace Borges, books and dreams. She brings with her a number of books that literally prevent her from properly shaking the hand of El Capitan when she arrives at his home. This bookishness will be important because the film’s second plot revolves around the magical world that Ofelia enters – with echoes of “The Wizard of Oz” and, of course, “Peter Pan” and Jiminy Cricket – where she has been identified by a faun who accompanies her through the underworld labyrinth as the lost princess.
Rather than questioning the faun and rejecting his proposal to return to her “lost” home, Ofelia elects to enter the world of imagination – ‘Alam al-Mithal. She is given a book – The Book of Crossroads – echoing the ancient Persian concept of the Barzakh that we mentioned earlier – which she finds to have blank pages that are magically filled in when she begins to perform the three tasks assigned her by the faun; tasks that will return her to the invisible world of the princess and, more importantly, out of the painful world of El Capitan that is starting to destroy her and her beloved mother.
Ofelia enters into this richly detailed world of horrible beauty that is filled with insects, demonic figures and forbidding halls and labyrinths. It is a world that is as awesome as it is terrifying. And of course this fits into the classic pattern of the Horror movie genre which entices by its enchantment, but terrorizes us with its Otherness.
But there is never a moment when Ofelia loses her faith in this world. She knows that she has been chosen and that she harbors the secret wisdom that is now afforded her by her guardian faun. She is able to magically help her mother who teeters on the brink of death because of the pregnancy. The faun instructs Ofelia to place a mandrake root in a bowl with fresh milk and two drops of blood. The occult ritual transforms the mandrake into a living creature that heals the sick mother who is quickly restored.
Del Toro skillfully crisscrosses the two narratives in masterful fashion. The realism of the violence that El Capitan inflicts on others is matched by the retreat into a ghost-world of magical splendor as Ofelia sets out to fulfill the tasks given her. The machinations of the rebels are found out by El Capitan and the story of Spain is told as it must have happened; a world of brutality and primal class-based hatred where those who fought for freedom were bludgeoned by those without conscience, men who held to no morality other than the vain sense of their own innate superiority over other human beings.
At a crucial moment in the film Ofelia makes a critical mistake which brings the two plots closer together once again. Del Toro understands that the two worlds must continually collide with each other and where the results of this collision are often tragic and disastrous; leading to a calamitous outbreak of violence that only serves to reinforce the Gnostic vision of the underworld.
Along the way, the viewer is reminded of the great technical skill and innovation of great film artists like Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and Stanley Kubrick just as Del Toro seeks to tell his story in a very Pulp-like way, simply and with very little moral ambiguity. He even references the great Anthony Mann’s “He Walked by Night” in a scene where El Capitan has to stitch up a large gash on his face, just as Richard Basehart did in the Mann film.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” benefits from this fusion of the old B-movie traditions with the massive pyrotechnics of the digital FX age. Building on the innovations of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Del Toro makes use of the technology, but not for its own flashy self. As an artist he is not simply concerned with the grand sumptuousness of his images – which are plenty sumptuous indeed – but he has anchored the visual wizardry in a story that echoes the Marxist Humanism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez combined with the palimpsest history of Borges.
Constantly referring to the reflexive literary past as signified by the reading of books and the sacred production of narratives, Del Toro has provided his film with the sort of intellectual heft that is normally the province of European Art films – but here he has wedded a deep philosophical complexity to a B-movie sensibility which seeks to tell a story in deceptively simple ways.
The Gnostic reality of “Pan’s Labyrinth” recalls, again, “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz” and a tradition of fairy tales that, once fused with the harsh political realities of mid-20th century Spain, creates a literary hybrid of extraordinary potency. Unlike the anemic and childish allegories of Spielberg and Lucas, artists who have mastered the many complexities of the new technology but who have failed in an abject way when it comes to telling adult stories of true passion and human pain, Del Toro has made an adult fable of great maturity. He has freed himself from a Hollywood where he was trapped as a functionary producing commercial pablum on the assembly line of an industry that has been taken over by simpletons and idiots; those more concerned with the financial bottom line than for the art of cinema.
In Hollywood’s Golden Age there was a balance struck between Art and Commerce. Directors like Michael Curtiz made glorious popular entertainments that nourished the mind and spirit as much as they entertained their audiences. Today’s Hollywood is a place filled with very clever people who know too much for their own good. Lacking the simple naivety of the old masters who sought to weave their complex themes in a way that has been characterized by the great Martin Scorsese as “smuggling,” the new age of Hollywood thinks that it is above such strategies.
But, working independently and against the grain of the current system, Guillermo Del Toro has gone back to the models of the old masters, Browning, Whale, Hitchcock and Curtiz, to produce what is perhaps one of the greatest movies of its sort ever made.
“Pan’s Labyrnith” is a film that functions as a Horror epic for kids who have been weaned on Harry Potter, but is just as much an adult film whose depths plumb the very recesses of the Gnostic realities that have animated the great literary masters who sought redemption through the rejection of the “real” world.
It is here that Del Toro inscribes his narrative art in the Borgesian tradition of time travelers like the mythic Pierre Menard who seeks to rewrite Cervantes’ Don Quixote by absurdly transcribing it word-by-word and Funes el Memorioso whose memory is like a magnet that serves to torture him by not allowing him to forget any detail that he has ever thought. Del Toro is here, recalling the rabbinical tradition of Midrashic exegesis, playing with Time as he alternates his story from the unseen world of the Hurqalya, a place where Ofelia is able to escape the misery and fear of her “real” life, to the harsh and violent space of the Spanish Civil War.
The theme of Time as fate is reinforced by the recurring motif that is deployed throughout the movie showing El Capitan fussing with his watch; waiting for a death that he intends to mark by shattering the watch and immortalizing the moment of his demise. Normative Time and existence traces the linear path in the life of the evil El Capitan in contrast to the cyclical Gnostic time of the hidden world that Ofelia as the princess returns to.
There are few, if any, films in our day that match the extraordinary audacity of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Tellingly, the film was produced outside a Hollywood system which, sad to say, could not conceive of such an imaginatively creative project. It is a deeply allusive work that is enriched by some of the most densely lush imagery that could be imagined. While watching the dazzling images of this potent film, I was reminded of one of the greatest triumphs of the Technicolor age – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes”; another film that tests the will of a young female artist who is trapped between two worlds – though the worlds laid out in that classic film are quite different to that of “Pan’s Labyrinth” which is more firmly anchored in the classic Hollywood Horror movie tradition.
For those who cherish the cinema in its temporal sense as a historical tradition or for those who simply wish to luxuriate in the sheer genius of a filmmaker who takes his role(s) as storyteller and craftsman equally seriously, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a movie that recalls the best of what the cinema has given to us. It speaks in a moral language that incorporates the spiritual universe in a very emotional way. Its moral sense is one that denies that we can ever fully triumph over the seen; its morality is rooted in the Gnostic/Kabbalistic tradition where the individual is forced to see beyond the tears, the pain, and the tortuous nature of the life we live; leading us to other worlds that exist beyond those that are the ones that cause us hurt.
It is this spiritual reality which speaks to a wider intellectual tradition that, like those brilliantly fractured tales of Jorge Luis Borges, brings us back to examine in a profound and intimate way who we are as human beings and how we fit into the larger configuration of human history; a history where the weak all-too-often simply disappear and where the wicked and the strong stand triumphantly victorious.
In this sense, the complex resolution at the end of “Pan’s Labyrinth” shows us in a contrapuntal manner that we can only rely on our internal sense and that we can only find our exalted redemption in the throes of a world outside of the one that we live in. Against those who torture us unmercifully, we can only become free once we explode their cruel and malignant realities as we see Ofelia do.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a triumph that re-inscribes contemporary cinema back into the classic Hollywood tradition; something that makes it one of the most brilliant of recent films and one that will most certainly stand the test of time along with the great visions that Hollywood was once able to produce in great quantity and which it has now given up on.
And for this we must applaud the genius of Guillermo Del Toro who has shown himself to be one of the great masters of film craft and practitioner of a noble literary heritage at whose head is such a man as the great and brilliant Borges; whose own Jewish antecedents mark him as a crucial expositor of an Oriental world that has enriched the palette of Western civilization with a critical mysticism that fuses the real and the imaginary in ways that continue to astound and dazzle.