Pan’s Labyrinth

I admit, after hearing that this movie had won at Cannes and had scored with, seemingly, all critics, I was shackled with high expectations about Guillermo Del Toro’s new film, Pan’s Labyrinth. Though I’m generally apathetic about the fantasy and horror genres, I felt I tried to meet it halfway. The failure of Pan’s Labyrinth for me was that it was completely lacking in moral ambiguity or subtlety. It’s basically an application of hero archetypes, sort of a George Lucas film with a Mexican twist of extra brutality and magical realism. That it wowed them at Cannes probably has more to do with the fact that the audience still remembers the glory days of Bunuel sneaking Viridiana in under Franco’s nose in 1961 and wishes that the world were today as simple a place. But Bunuel is the one who said, “Artists cannot change the world. But, they can keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive.”

There is nothing remotely nonconformist about Del Toro’s film, and even more disappointing, it suffers from an almost cynical use of myth to give a sheen of psychological depth. The mythological figure of Pan (or, the satyr) is admittedly properly malevolent—the girl is suspicious of him, finally exerting her personal choice to sacrifice herself in order to preserve her innocent baby brother. And Del Toro has the heroine use herself as the catalyst for changing two base elements—her stepfather’s fascist political system and the satyr’s brutal labyrinth—into an opportunity for the redemption of innocence. But, it’s an unconvincing alchemy because Del Toro idealizes the revolutionary troops as a utopian answer to the brutality of the world when they are clearly of the world themselves. It’s tempting to recall Woody Allen’s satire of similar troops in “Bananas,” and the Who’s awakening to the fact that the “new boss” was the “same as the old boss.” Why on Earth couldn’t Del Toro give up the matrix of idealization and portray the truth about the real world, that it’s a combination of evil and cruelty mixed with kindness and grace? Would it have upset the applecart of his carefully constructed humanist fantasy?

In an interview, Del Toro stated that he had turned down an opportunity to direct “Narnia—the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” because he “wasn’t interested in the Lion’s resurrection.” It’s very telling that he would choose to reject the idea of sacrifice and resurrection in an allegory about Christ while favoring instead the mystical pagan sacrifice in Pan’s Labyrinth. After the Spanish church’s support of Franco, it seems the birthright of Spanish and and Latin American ex-Catholics has been to reject Christianity as patriarchalism. In doing so, some have moved toward worship of the feminine. The tree opening into which the heroine crawls is shaped like the opening of a vagina. That’s all good and fine; Pan himself has been historically represented as a phallus. But Alchemy, according to the Jungian model Del Toro tacitly acknowledges, involves the unification of opposites to produce something that art historian Sidra Stich describes as “not…a harmonious union, but…a dynamic, complex synthesis.” In trotting out his Bullfinch’s inspired sketches for his production designer, Del Toro merely adds to the glut of popular, visually arresting mythmaking a la Lucas—he pleases Cannes current audience and the jaded critics hungry to be goosed by something new at the movies, but falls short of something really great.

UPDATE [1/06/2007]:

I had posted this short review on a the SF Diplomat Web site, a blog site by British blogger Johnathan McCalmont, after a nearly vain search for some others who might have a minority negative view of the film and came up with the following:

Blogger-critic Jonathan McCalmont replies:

Obviously, I agree with you about Del Toro’s bungled handling of the fascists. However, in the last Star Wars film, Lucas forced his own carefully constructed mythical universe to implode as instead of Anakin falling from grace, he fell into relativism with all of his talk of how only Sith talk in absolutes and how, from his perspective, it’s the Jedi that are evil. So you might being a bit unfair on either Lucas or Del Toro by comparing one to the other.

Your point about Del Toro’s refusal to engage with Christianity whilst not straying far from Christian concepts is very interesting and, I think, a fascinating fact about Del Toro that ties him in to a wider cinematic tradition.

Many have compared Del Toro to Bunuel (despite Bunuel being ten times the film-maker Del Toro will ever be) and judging by the search queries that hit my website, many are also seeking to compare him to Jodorowsky. This is interesting as Del Toro, Bunuel and Jodorowsky all embraced the languages of surrealism (though some more than others) and all of them have ties both to Spain and Mexico, thereby lending the concept of a wider Spanish language film-making movement credibility (despite the fact that most Spanish films really have nothing much to do with Mexico).

However, these cosmetic similarities aside, all three Directors have similar trouble freeing themselves from their roots in Christian cultures.
Bunuel freed himself by turning his considerable wit against Christianity. Indeed, I cannot think of a more stinging and vicious satire of Christianity than the end of Exterminating Angel. Compare this to the timorous mocking at the far more famous hands of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (let Satan protect us all from images of a 1970’s John Cleese saying how it’s impossible to mock Christianity because Jesus was such a great moral philosopher) or the “But God’s great ain’t he” fawning of noted Catholic and imbecile Kevin Smith in Dogma.
Jodorowsky meanwhile embraced pretty much every belief system under the Sun and none at the same time. But despite clearly disliking Christianity and organised religion, he is unable to free himself from its imagery. Thereby inviting the playground come back “If you’re an atheist, why can’t you shut up about Christianity?”.

However, Del Toro’s attitude to Christianity is perhaps the most intriguing as well as the most puzzling. Del Toro makes a film about the nature of belief in Spain and yet omits to mention Catholicism except within the subtext of the film’s climax. The interview you mention says that Del Toro has no interest in resurrection and sacrifice and yet there it is on the screen, cloaked in bargain-basement paganism. Del Toro Is displaying what Sartre would have called “bad faith” as he is someone who claims to be uninterested in the teachings of the Christian god and yet we find them nonetheless appearing, under the cloak of an unconvincing classical paganism.

Del Toro is a textbook example of the modern “spiritual person”. He is someone who lacks the courage and imagination to question the beliefs that were drilled into him as a child but, nonetheless, wants to look like a free and original thinker. Therefore, he gives his beliefs a new lick of paint and wheels them out as if they are different, challenging or weird.
In this respect, Pan’s Labyrinth is very much like any piece of post-Tolkienian fantasy; it’s resolutely a-political, it’s inherently pro-status quo and it’s all about presenting other worlds in a way that makes them familiar and safe to the reader.

Del Toro’s a great visual stylist and he clearly reads the right kinds of books but I seriously doubts that he understands them as if you scrape beneath the weirdness you’ll find only the old, the familiar and the comfortable.

—Jonathan McCalmont

My reply to his comment:

Jonathan—Well, we may disagree on this, but I think that if you scrape the surface of anything the most daring artists do, at the bottom you’ll find something “old, familiar, and…comfortable”—in other words—human. I should tell you that I considered myself an agnostic, even an atheist, for many years as I towed the mid-20th century anti-Christianity line until I got sick of my own hypocrisy. Brought up as a Unitarian in an Italian-American family whose patriarch was an atheist and anarchist, I discovered that Bunuel’s world view fit with mine, for a time. His was a bemused, entomological view of human beings and their follies. As a bracingly sane man who was born in the first year of that weird, horrific century, he rejected the labyrinthine and tortured self-justifications of organized religion. Not having been shackled with a religious upbringing, I can now embrace the beauty of the idea of God coming down to Earth in the form of a Man and sacrificing Himself to illustrate the futility of, among other things, human ritual sacrifice and war (Rene Gerard helps me understand this). I still have a rationalist’s difficulty with the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, but I’m OK with at least trying to be a Christian. I have to be interested in Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection, if for no other reason than its irrationality mirrors my own experience of life as I experience it—a constant process of idol worshipping false Selves dying to be reborn.

Personally, the long journey from being in lock step with the tortured self-justifications of Humanism and its doctrine of the perfectibility of Man—to an acceptance of deep mystery and original sin—is a load off my mind. Bunuel, though I may no longer need his atheism, prized mystery and didn’t suffer utopian fools gladly. Del Toro’s still looking for the perfect closed system in which we can solve our problems. He chose the mode of sacrifice because there is no other way to describe the experience of our dying—it’s an inescapable sacrifice of the self. If, as Joseph Campbell says, religion’s purpose is to prepare us for Death, then Del Toro is providing us with that, but, as you say, is cloaking resurrection and sacrifice in “bargain-basement paganism.” My question to you is, if there is something newer and shinier and better than Religion that answers the dilemma of living and dying in what some have called a tragic veil of tears, then what is it? Nanotechnology? Psychology? Humanism?

—John Dentino

Jonathan McCalmont’s second reply:

John—Perhaps you are right about the ultimate humanity of Del Toro. However, it is one thing for Del Toro to be human and ultimately prone to rediscovering the wheel, but it is quite another for his art to do the same. Countless great thinkers have come up with new ways of seeing the world. Cinema is a forgiving medium and as such, it is easier to float new ideas than in many other mediums. For Del Toro to fall back on the Catholicism of his youth feels… disappointing.

As for Christianity, I don’t think we are likely to agree. for example, you see beauty in the act of atonement undertaken by Christ on the cross and I see exactly the opposite. St. Anselm formulated the satisfaction theory of atonement. According to this, man’s tendency to sin (and the original Sin itself) broke a conclave between God and Man. A Conclave that could only be repaired through an act of atonement… the sacrifice of a man without sin… a man who was God. Far from a denunciation of human sacrifice, I would argue that this IS human sacrifice… an angry god who can only be appeased through an offering of blood. While there are different theories of atonement, all of them have that same idea at their heart: Man has transgressed against God and should we ever hope to get back into his good graces then an act of sacrifice is necessary. I don’t see any beauty in that… only something truely truely terrifying. Leading us to your last point.

I’m an atheist but I don’t really class myself as a humanist. In fact, I don’t really consider myself an adoptee of any particular school of moral or political thought. However, when it comes to the stuff you’re talking about… the tragic veil of tears… then I really get a kick out of Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism. At the heart of the book is the idea that existence precedes essence. In other words, we define ourselves through our thoughts and our actions and these aren’t determined by any grand cosmic plan. In fact, humanity is truly free. We can form up into belligerent tribes and exterminate each other, we can build a civilisation that will come to dominate the galaxy or we can accidentally destroy ourselves. There is nothing out there to hold our hand or to guide us or to tell us what to do… we are free and we are responsible for our actions and ultimately it’s up to us to come up with our own answers and to give our own lives meaning by exercising that choice and determining our own essence both as individuals and as a species. Many think this view is bleak or depressing… I don’t… I see it as utterly and completely uplifting. There are no limits on our freedom.

On his Web site, I posted the following on January 22, 2007 :

Just to chime in once again, indeed, there are no limits to human freedom. Reasonable people can totally disagree about what that means. For me, the freedom and responsibility we have is something to be wary of, and I’ve learned to impose some limits on it. Sirens call us from the shore and beckon us to crash ourselves into the rocks. Jonathan, your statement, “There is nothing out there to hold our hand or to guide us or to tell us what to do,” is obviously something with which I disagree. Religion is that guide, or, if you prefer, the spiritual traditions of the past such as Buddhism are repositories of wisdom that tell us what to do.

His reply, January 23, 2007:

I’m afraid that I don’t have much more time for Buddhism than I do for Catholicism. They’re all much of a muchness to me, little more than the intellectual remnants of man’s past whether it’s the iron age philosophy of Christianity or the admittedly philosophically complex but pre-scientific musings of what we now consider “eastern philosophy”.

But setting aside the truth or falsity of the metaphysical claims made by religion, I find Catholicism in particular politically at odds with what I believe to be true and what I think would make for a better society.

I’m reminded of an interview with the Monty Python team when they made the Life of Brian. Apparently they set out to mock the teachings of Jesus but decided in the end that you couldn’t because it was just “good moral philosophy”. I couldn’t disagree more and in fact, even if God did exist I’d say that the moral code he had laid out for us was wrong and harmful. Voltaire said that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to create him but on a purely political level I think that even if God did exist, it would be necessary for man to destroy him.

No, I am happier dealing with a free humanity. even if that freedom means the freedom to commit atrocities or waste one’s life. It’s still more palatable to me than the idea of living enslaved to a deity’s moral code.

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Posted at 11pm on 01/01/2007 | comments are closed Filed Under: Daily

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