Which is scarier—being terrorized by someone who is both smart and evil, or by an entire society that’s stupid beyond belief? I got to compare and contrast when I saw the creepy, beautiful, tragic Pan’s Labyrinth in the movie theater, then came home and watched Mike Judge’s intentionally ugly dark-edged satire Idiocracy. I know, I know, get a life.
The films have a surprising amount in common despite their surface dissimilarities: they both dissect how oppression works, and both find its chief enabler in blind, mind-numbed obedience to authority figures. The difference is that in Labyrinth, the authority figure is cursed/blessed with an awareness that he is indeed evil. In Idiocracy, the violent goons who run things don’t even know there’s anything wrong. Draw your own parallels to today’s leaders.
Pan’s Labyrinth, from writer/director Guillermo del Toro, sets its story in the 1940s, when Franco’s fascists were consolidating their control over Spain but still had to root out Republican and Communist guerrilla fighters opposed to their regime. That’s what’s happening in the “real” world. In a parallel fairy-tale world that comes to seem just as real, a princess seeks to take back her birthright by performing three increasingly difficult tasks. She’s menaced by creatures out of del Toro’s and our nightmares—the most unsettling is a baggy-skinned, bony thing whose sharp fingers are stained with the blood of the children he’s gored. His removable eyeballs go not in his head but in the palms of his hands—the better to see around corners, I guess. The princess is cajoled along on these quests by a lively yet tree-like faun (Doug Jones), who is more ugly/beautiful than any Narnia faun and who may be up to no good.
The link between the two worlds is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the 10-year-old stepdaughter of the particularly vicious fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Ofelia’s timid mother Carmen, many months pregnant with Vidal’s son, has traveled with the captain and his men to a remote country mill near a guerrilla stronghold. The housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is playing a dangerous game, spying on the captain and smuggling food and medicine to the resistance fighters. It takes Vidal a while to suspect Mercedes because, vain chauvinistic peacock that he is, he can’t quite get his head around the idea that a woman is smarter and possibly as dangerous as he is.
And he is dangerous: he’s a murderer and torturer who is all the scarier for seeming so reasonable, even offhanded, about the violence he causes. He has totally cowed his wife Carmen, who in his mind is little more than a disposable life support system for his son and heir. Fortunately Ofelia, with her connections to the natural/magical forest around the old mill, finds the strength to resist Vidal’s monstrousness without herself becoming a monster.
.Del Toro shows the same filmmaking skills that have defined both his most personal work (The Devil’s Backbone) and his more Hollywood efforts (Mimic and Hellboy, among others). His command of color, bathing the “real” world in cool blues and greens but making parts of the fairy-tale world rich with reds and purples, is impressive (credit also cinematographer Guillermo Navarro). The music by Javier Navarrete also does a lot to make the two worlds separate yet equal. Del Toro has also done wonders with his actors, particularly Baquero and Verdu, two brave women who look fear in the face while letting us know how difficult it is to do so.
The film’s messages—that fighting evil often demands sacrifice, and that we subvert the natural world at our own peril—are worthy but in some ways beside the point. The strength of Pan’s Labyrinth is that its imagery has the capacity to get behind your eyeballs and into your head. We may not care about 60-year-old battles between Franco and his enemies, but we care that this princess is willing to give up her kingdom for the sake of an innocent child.