In the century of Picasso, Hemmingway, Bunuel, Dali, Orwell and Garcia Lorca, it is hard to be a stranger to the Spanish Civil War, and certainly few conflicts can have been more represented in art, from Guernica to For Whom the Bell Tolls to Homage to Catalonia and countless others. And unlike many of the other epic conflicts of the twentieth century West, the Spanish Civil War is imbued with all the romance that accrues to lost causes; for it ended in victory for the fascists, led by General Francisco Franco. An unfortunate byproduct of this attention has been the refraction of the war primarily through either the prism of loss of innocence and idealism, or that of the avant-garde in art and politics, covering the gamut from surrealism, anarchism, and seemingly every other -ism under the sun. At times it has become easy to forget that while the history books by and large have the Civil War ending in 1939, armed resistance to the Falangists continued for years, and that the victorious side, personified by Franco, continued to rule Spain until as recently as 1975, with a mixture of Church collusion, censorship of journalistic and artistic freedoms, and brutality (while any amnesia in Spain itself is attributable to the trauma and guilt associated with the Franco years, elsewhere the amnesia serves an ideological function to an extent, as the experience of Francoist Spain is hardly consistent with a European and American self-image that the post-1945 triumph of liberalism, democracy, free markets, and much else that is often thought of under the sign of “the good” in contemporary thought, as an inevitable development and logical “end” for Western civilization). That is to say, fascism in Western Europe did not die when Hitler shot himself in his bunker, and was alive and well for at least three more decades – indeed, the political career of the French rightist Jean Marie Le Pen, as well as that of numerous other rightist ideologues, suggests that the clash between the economies of globalization and the traditional ground of the European nation-states might yet write a discomfiting coda to a history that might not be as “past” as we would like to believe.
Guillermo del Toro has not forgotten, and in El Laberinto del Fauno (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) he has created an unforgettable film, an accessible fairy-tale that unfolds like a continuous nightmare. It is set in 1944, five years after the supposed end of the Spanish Civil War; “supposed” because if the war is over, someone forgot to tell the lefitist guerillas who continue to fight on in the remote forests of Northern Spain. And certainly no-one told Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the commanding officer of the local garrison, who sees enemies everywhere, and whose motto is eternal, unrelenting vigilance: no effort is too great and no cruelty too extreme to stamp the guerillas out.
While superficially dedicated to the defense of the Francoist order, it is clear that Vidal is more archetype than man, fascist in his soul and in every fibre of his being – from his meticulously groomed face and hair to the supremely ordered way in which he runs his household – rather than in any ideologically specific way. In other words, Vidal is a fairy-tale ogre, reborn as a twentieth-century fascist. And in Sergi Lopez, Vidal has the perfect host. So authoritative and thorough is Lopez’s portrayal of Vidal that it must rank with the most famous on-screen embodiments of pure villainy. Notably, this effect is produced not by caricature or the merely grotesque, but by Lopez being able to convince the audience that his Captain Vidal will do exactly as he says, and that he is utterly pitiless. That belief is fully in place shortly after Lopez’s entry, and is by itself a greater source of audience terror than any “supernatural” element in the film.
Which brings us to the tale: it is 1944, and Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter, the precociously imaginative child Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in a performance so astounding in one so young one is hardpressed to see how anyone else can merit an award in any film festival or other award category she competes in) are en route to join Ofelia’s step-father Vidal at his garrison. The journey is arduous and unwise given that Carmen is in the middle of a difficult pregnancy, but she has no choice: Vidal believes a son – and he is convinced his offspring will be male – should be born with his father at hand. Ofelia’s father died years ago, and the film suggests that Carmen might have married Vidal because of the protection and stability he provides. Her choice is understandable enough, but signing up for what Vidal has to offer means utterly subordinating herself to his rule. Vidal, in short, demands not love or affection but obedience.
Ofelia is very much an outsider to Vidal’s kingdom, with her love of fables and fairy tales and her ability to spot the magic that lurks everywhere around her. Indeed Vidal is visibly irritated by her bookishness, and no wonder, for as the audience quickly intuits, her fabulist bent is deeply subversive of Vidal’s kingdom, built as it is upon the tyranny of cold, brutal fact over the dream. No adults can see what she sees, beginning with a strange shape-shifting creature that follows her around, to the garden labyrinth and its presiding deity, a mysterious and threatening faun who announces to her that she is a long-lost fairy princess who may regain her birthright upon completion of three tasks. The fairy-tale has well and truly begun, as has the terror.
Each of Ofelia’s forays into the “other” world is by means of a rather everyday portal (a floor or a wall in her home), an indication perhaps of the uncanniness that might lurk under the skin of the mundane – or, perhaps, of the illusion of what we deem “real”, peeling back to reveal something truly rich and strange. It would be a mistake to view Ofelia’s voyages to the fable world as merely attempts to escape from an unpleasant reality. Rather, her quests are necessary to repair a reality that is otherwise irremediably broken; in short, there is no hard and fast dividing line between the worlds, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. For just as the fantastic presses upon the mundane, so too does Vidal’s world impinge upon the world on the other side. In both, terror and the threat of irreparable loss are ever present.
The terror of the "other" world that I’m referring to is the result of Del Toro’s (and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro’s) singular cinematic vision, yielding a domain, and a visual sensibility, that is surpassingly strange yet distantly familiar, its contours calling to mind a reality that we once knew (perhaps in a dream?), or that we now anxiously seek to forget, mindful that its gross appetites, violence, and vibrancy present a mirror of the “everyday” that we need to avert our eyes from if the mundane is to be livable. The terror, in short, arises because the world beyond Ofelia’s portals is not wholly “other”, but utterly familiar.
It is fitting that among the adults around Ofelia, only the servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) appears to have any affinity for her strange imagination (even if Mercedes is unable to fathom it); for Mercedes is another subversive element in Vidal’s domain, secretly in league with the guerillas who are fighting against the fascist regime. The presence of a savior figure in Mercedes is never likely to result in a happy ending for this fairy tale, and without giving too much away I will state that it is in the film’s conclusion that we see a “true” fantasy for Ofelia, in the sense of an escape from the world. Vidal himself ends as all ogres do, that is to say badly, slain by his enemies, but only after knowing that his name will not live on after him.
Perhaps our satisfaction at Vidal’s end is also a true fantasy, this time for the audience. For we would like to believe that the fascist nightmares of the twentieth century are irremediably past, and Del Toro gives us exactly what we want, albeit with enough subversion to make any satisfaction sit uneasily. Whatever Vidal’s fate, our reaction is tinged with regret at the mode of Ofelia’s happiness, “regret” because her happiness is not for this world, and hence not for us. To put it another way, I return to where I began from: the Francoist regime did not end in 1944, but lasted for three more decades.