Monday, April 30, 2012

Pan's Labyrinth: Magical Realism

There is a genre of literature that Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez have often used called "magical realism." As the name suggests, this style involves combining magical and realistic elements in a story. One of my favorite stories of this kind by Marquez is called "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." It's set in an ordinary town in Argentina. One day, a very old and haggard man with giant bird-like wings falls from the sky and lands in the town. Instead of welcoming their supernatural visitor, the townspeople lock him in the chicken coop, cruelly mistreat him and exploit him for profit. When he finally escapes and flies away, nobody really gives a shit.

One of the hallmarks of this genre is that, although it includes fantasy elements, it is usually about real-world social and political problems. Marquez's strange fables were very much connected to harsh realities of his day, and Latin America in the 20th century has certainly had its share of social and political problems.

Mexican director Guellermo Del Toro's 2006 film "Pan's Labyrtinth" is very much in the tradition of Latin American magical realism.

It's set in Spain in 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War, when the country was under the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The story takes place at a military outpost ruled by the cruel captain Vidal, who is continually repelling the guerrilla attacks of the freedom fighters living in the woods surrounding the outpost. Vidal's new bride, whose former husband was assassinated by the Franco regime, and her young daughter Ofelia arrive to stay with the captain and his troops.

The real hero of the story is the young Ofelia, who has a rich imagination. She discovers an ancient stone labyrinth near the military outpost and befriends an old faun. The faun tells her that her real father is not dead, but is the king of an underground realm of great beauty and goodness. In order to re-enter her kingdom and re-claim her throne as princess, she must prove that her spirit is pure.

The faun presents Ofelia with three challenges, each of which mirrors and comments upon the real-world political struggles happening all around her. For example, her first task is to retrieve a golden key from the belly of a fat old toad who has taken up residence underneath a dying tree. Her quest to defeat the toad is paralleled with scenes of Captain Vidal and his troops giving tiny food rations to the townspeople while serving themselves lavish feasts. The toad represents the fascist regime, which hoards resources and lives off the death and suffering of the people.

The story of the film, like much magical realism, is about the power of imagination to transcend and transform ugly social realities. My friend Bob Jensen, Dean of Fine Arts at Fullerton College, coined a term called "imagination deficit disorder," which explains a lot. Many of the world's problems represent a failure of imagination. Artists, people who have imagination, have the power and ability to dream of new ways of thinking about and doing things.

So often, people view the problems of the world as "just the way things are." Even Ofelia's mother criticizes her daughter for believing in fairy tales and not accepting harsh reality. But if everyone had that fatalistic/cynical view, there would be no social change, no one to take a stand against things like slavery, fascism, child labor, oppression of women, exploitation. It takes people of imagination to see the world not just as it is, but as it can be.

 Thus, the hero of "Pan's Labyrinth" is not a strong man with a gun, but a little girl with a rich imagination, and a fierce belief in her vision.

 Here's an interview with the director, in which he discusses, among other things, why he had to go outside Hollywood to make this film...



  1. This is a beautiful, unusual review. Thank you.

  2. I found Pans Labyrinth beautiful but very disturbing. Your review makes me see it in a new light. Thank you.

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  4. Loved your analysis! Very interesting to see your comparison of the toad to the Captain in terms of food rationing. I feel that the pale man in this movie further reinforces this idea. He has this extensive dining table filled with all the best kinds of foods, however no one (especially children apparently) are allowed to touch it. I feel that this really parallels Vidal's one ration card per family idea, while he is having these elaborate feasts with his inner circle. The composition of the dining table scenes and the pale man dining table scenes seem to purposefully resemble one another. And then the scene with the pale man chasing ophelia after eating from his table also kind of parallels the scene near the end of the movie when Vidal is chasing Ophelia into the labyrinth after she has taken her brother from him.

  5. Interesting article... May I share an Interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez (imaginary) in