This chapter considers del Toro’s political horror films: The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno). If Cronos brought an alchemic touch to the vampire movie, re-politicizing the genre in its representation of US–Mexico economic and political relations, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth rework key Gothic motifs and fairy-tale conventions in order to explore the traumas of childhood and war, central concerns in del Toro’s Spanish-language films that make use of the Civil War setting.
Everybody in the movie is a ghost; the entire movie is about dead people. We are in 2001 and these are people who lived in 1939. Therefore the colours are amber, white, black and earth most of the time, and then we have the green and the very, very pale green-blue for night scenes. For the exteriors, we used a filter called chocolate that made all the light outside gold or amber. Everything in the movie was meant to look like a Goya painting because he is one of the great painters of war. (del Toro in Archibald 2001)
Cronos sees del Toro re-situating the vampire narrative as a metaphor for international dependencies which mirror border tensions between the U.S. and Mexico. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth similarly rework Gothic conventions and fairy-tale tropes act as vehicles for the exploration of trauma, childhood and war. Karen Lury has written extensively about the ways in which filmmakers have explored this kind of subject matter and her comments on Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) could well be applied to del Toro’s films: ‘It demonstrates how the child figure and childhood enable film-makers to radically and creatively re-tell the past and, in particular, inform us about the strangeness, the murky ambiguities and the real trauma of war. It does this primarily because it is a film about memory’ (Lury 2010: 112). Del Toro’s use of the child’s perspective in these films is a central element in their deconstruction and reconstruction of historical trauma, providing a disruptively individual and questioning approach to events. Rather like the Mexican del Toro approaching recent Spanish history, the child figure is both inside and outside the historical context, given their often invisible status within recorded history. As commentators have observed (Labanyi, Martin and Ortega 2012: 253), there is a certain irony in a contemporary Mexican director focusing so strongly in two major projects on the period of the Spanish Civil War (although the original setting for The Devil’s Backbone was to be the Mexican Revolution). Both films were the result of transnational Spanish/Mexican and US production, but the Almodóvar brothers, Pedro and Augustin, were particularly instrumental in the backing of The Devil’s Backbone through their production company El Deseo. The child figure is a key constituent of the ‘dissonant elements’ that Labanyi et al. see as key to del Toro’s process of ‘deconstruction rather than reconstruction of the past’ (2012: 253). As a result del Toro’s characteristically disruptive melding of diverse genres, filmic, literary and visual, creates a productively radical, dissonant and interrogative approach to the cinematic representation of history.
Both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth interrogate the historical and cultural trauma of the Spanish Civil War through the perceptions and reactions of child figures who are both victims of war and its impact (they are or become orphans) but also potential agents of resistance. Rather like the new Spanish democracy that followed on from Franco’s death, they are inevitably shaped and damaged by the traumas of the past but may also represent future possibilities for change or transcendence. In del Toro’s films this is an uncertain possibility: neither of his two Civil War films can offer the reassurance of an easy resolution or firm closure given that we obviously know the historical outcomes, but both suggest ongoing political and historical issues that are hitherto unresolved. Both seem to confirm the persistence of ghostly hauntological traces within the national psyche, as do the many Spanish films that have attempted to enact a similarly allegorical interrogation, from Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Saura’s Cria Cruervos (1975) (both of which appeared during the last years of Franco’s rule) to Armendáriz’s Secrets of the Heart (Secretos del Corazón) (1997), Cuerda’s Butterfly’s Tongue (La lengua de las Mariposas) (1999) and Bayona’s The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007), amongst many others. All these films place children at their centre in ways that emphasize close links between personal trauma and unresolved family and/or national politics. Del Toro’s involvement as Executive Producer in The Orphanage indicates his desire to foster new directing talent – this was the director J.A. Bayona’s first major release – but also evinces his desire to revisit the ideas and implications of his own Spanish-language oeuvre in other contexts. The contemporary setting of The Orphanage underlines the persistent nature of an historical trauma that still shapes and undermines individual lives, and by implication, the national consciousness.
The centrality of children in these films is significant in a number of ways. As the above quotation from Lury’s study implies, the child’s point of view offers filmmakers a perspective on war and trauma that enables the emergence of the strange or uncanny – that which has been repressed or denied – given that children are often invisible in official accounts of war. Ellen Brinks has suggested that Freud’s sense of children’s susceptibility to the uncanny is key to del Toro’s films: ‘The Devil’s Backbone generates a number of recurrent uncanny images that efface the difference between death and life/survival, similar to the operations of traumatic memory’ (2004: 296). The film’s use of the child’s point of view, both in its subject matter and also in its camerawork and cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, stresses the importance of child subjectivity and allows for this blurring of the borderlines between past and present, voice and silence, being and non-being. Ellen Brinks develops her point further by stressing the film’s use of children as a kind of portal into other ways of seeing:
By mediating the Spanish Civil War through the vocabulary of childhood trauma, however, the film also insists that this past is more ‘accessible’ through children’s eyes, as beings whose underdeveloped egos (and weaker defence mechanisms) render them particularly susceptible and sensitive both to traumatic memory’s durability and intrusiveness and to what escapes rational comprehension or control. It is with them that the audience is asked to identify. (2004: 294)
What is particularly distinctive about del Toro’s treatment of trauma in these films is the characteristic use he makes of narrative genres that at first sight seem surprising in this context, yet which hinge crucially upon trauma and its effects. The Devil’s Backbone is a vehicle for del Toro’s fascination for the Gothic romance in its multiple guises and Pan’s Labyrinth largely bases its narrative on a radical reworking of fairy tale and classic fiction from the literature of childhood. These familiar modes are echoed, re-configured and transformed in del Toro’s narrative and aesthetic melting pot in a process that makes the audience think afresh about the form and the subject matter.
Despite the orphanage setting and the absence of actual families in the film (unlike Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive), The Devil’s Backbone is a version of Gothic family drama played out in an isolated setting that incongruously combines a recognizably Gothic locale, the castle-like orphanage with its darkly mysterious cellars and corridors, and the blinding heat of the shadowless plain which resembles the desert-like setting of a Spaghetti Western. Del Toro has highlighted this merging of contrasted genres that characterizes much of his film-making, suggesting that:
the two main influences in the movie are the Gothic works of the Italian maestro of horror Mario Bava and the Western, especially classic Westerns like The Searchers or those directed by Anthony Mann, which are deconstructions of the Western, in a way. What I wanted to do was to meld these two things, seemingly so different, together. So I kept referring to the movie as my Mario Bava Western. (Chung 2002: 30)
The orphanage is characterized by shadowy, unknowable yet paradoxically domestic spaces (the kitchen is an important locale in the film) that conceal traces, secrets and ghosts of the past, emerging particularly from the seemingly unfathomable amber spaces of the watery cistern. In contrast, the desiccated and barren emptiness of the plain suggests the isolation of the orphanage and also the unforgiving brutality of the external world. Such physical contrasts serve some of the central dynamics in the film, between external reality and the unconscious, reason and superstition, violence and the imagination, child and adult worlds. These don’t operate as simple binaries – the film is too nuanced for that – rather as aspects of an ongoing dialectic in del Toro’s films about what it means to be human, especially a child, in extreme situations such as war. Just as the Spanish Civil War pitted family against family and even split families, so the film uses a central narrative template of a dysfunctional pseudo-familial structure – an orphanage – overseen by an adult ‘family’ that replicates aspects of Greek tragedy and Gothic perversity. In an interview with Mark Kermode in The Guardian, del Toro describes The Devil’s Backbone as a ‘microcosm of the Spanish Civil War … In trying to do that, I chose that war because it was a household war. People that shared beds, shared dining tables and shared lives ultimately killed each other’ (Kermode 2006b). The impotent ‘father’ Casares is in love with the matriarchal Carmen, who in turn is locked in a quasi-incestuous relationship with the ‘prince without a kingdom’, her ‘son’ Jacinto. This set of incomplete relationships is also informed by questions of class (Casares and Carmen are bourgeois Republican intellectuals, Jacinto cast as working class and proto-fascist, although he does not overtly express political allegiances).
This personal as well as political site of conflict has its origins in the director’s own experience of childhood, and del Toro has spoken in director’s DVD commentaries and in interviews with Kimberly Chun and Jason Wood amongst others of the autobiographical elements of the film. These include specific paranormal incidents he experienced as a child, such as the Santi-esque sighs of a ‘disembodied voice floating about half a foot from my face’ (Chun 2002: 29), which was seemingly the spirit of his dead uncle – a major influence on del Toro’s love for horror films (Chun 2002: 29). Other repetitions from del Toro’s childhood which feature in the film included the design of the classroom which replicated those in the Jesuit school he attended and Carlos and Jaime’s excursion for water, which originated from similar unnerving experiences in del Toro’s grandmother’s house. The characteristically oblique but significant use of religious imagery – as punishment three of the boys have to carry a heavy life-size figure of Christ on the cross into the central courtyard of the orphanage as a kind of Catholic window-dressing – suggests the relentless burden of the religion even for those who, like del Toro, rejected it early on in their lives. Del Toro has suggested on a number of occasions that his grandmother’s fervent religious beliefs drew him towards atheism at an early age. Hence trauma and memory, personal, familial, political, become a rich source of inspiration for the film that del Toro describes as his ‘first movie’ (Chun 2002: 29).
Steven Bruhm has suggested that one of the functions of contemporary Gothic is to respond to ‘social and national traumas … [that] have rendered humans unable to tell any kind of complete story about them. Thus the Gothic renders them in fits and starts, ghostly appearances and far-fetched fantasies, all attempting to reveal traumatic contradictions of the collective past that cannot be spoken’ (Bruhm 2002: 271–2). The Devil’s Backbone is replete with Gothic images that evoke the physical and mental landscape of traumas emanating from repressed memories of the Spanish Civil War. The film’s visual palette develops the kind of vivid, almost lurid tonalities redolent of Mario Brava’s Italian Gothic movies, with their neo-expressionist use of colour and violent contrasts. These filmic and visual characteristics are in turn underpinned in the narrative by the intertextual presence of Gothic fiction. The classic Gothic novel’s dealings with internal family conflict, including incest and sexual repression, hidden secrets, unnatural, ghostly or monstrous manifestations, provide del Toro with a rich vocabulary of ideas and images which he then transforms and translates into the apparently incongruous context of the last days of the Spanish Civil War. The surprising appropriateness of Gothic conventions in this historical and political context can be linked to recent readings of modern Spanish culture that construct it as a ‘ghost story’. As Jo Labanyi suggests, ‘ghosts are the return of the repressed of history – that is, the mark of an all-too-real historical trauma which has been erased from conscious memory but which makes its presence felt through its ghostly traces’ (2002: 6). Hence the ghostly child Santi is not only the orphan murdered by Jacinto (represented also as a kind of self-murder in the narrative) but is also an embodiment of the thousands who disappeared during the war itself and Franco’s dictatorship – those buried in mass graves that are only recently being located. By extension Santi may also stand for every child lost in the chaos of modern war. As Enrique Ajuria Ibarra has pointed out, two objects central to the film’s narrative, the ghost and the bomb, are invested with ‘particular significance and meaning to fill a persistent historical gap in Spain. The ghost and the bomb voice the silenced horrors of the Spanish Civil War’ (2012: 57).
Del Toro’s interest in the English Gothic tradition from both eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is strongly evident throughout his work as director, producer and screen-writer. This even extends to producing his own neo-Gothic printed texts. As part of the background material supporting his contribution as producer and screen-writer for the 2010 chiller Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, del Toro published (with Christopher Golden and illustrator/director Troy Nixey) a pastiche of late nineteenth-century Gothic in the form of Blackwood’s Guide to Dangerous Fairies, which purported to be the disturbing research diary of Emerson Blackwood, who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the film. The book is replete with Gothic paraphernalia, including black edging to the paper and monstrous illustrations and images. In his director’s commentary for The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro explicitly references what was arguably the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). He compares the melodramatic falling of the giant helmet which crushes Conrad, the weakling scion of the central family, in the novel’s opening scene, with the landing of the bomb that sits in the central space of the orphanage and, by implication, the film itself. (The screenplay of The Devil’s Backbone was developed by del Toro from an original story ‘The Bomb’ by Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz and the original setting for the film was to be the Mexican Revolution. He changed the setting to Spain because ‘Everything seemed to fit better’.) For the modern reader, Walpole’s falling helmet may have its decidedly risible side, but the bomb in del Toro’s film is deadly serious, although interestingly he inscribes it with a human dimension – the markings on the side make reference to his own address in Mexico and his and his wife’s shared nicknames. This chimes with the way in which the bomb works as a kind of character in the action: other characters (Alma, Jaime, Carlos) talk about and to it anthropomorphically and one of the red streamers attached to it apparently becomes animate as it points the way for Carlos’s search for the ghost Santi. Bomba, ¿estás viva? Dime dónde está Santi (Bomb, are you alive? Tell me where Santi is), asks Carlos. The bomb’s association with Santi is reinforced by the fact that it dropped the night that he disappeared. As Ellen Brinks suggests:
Like the helmet in Otranto, but more so, the bomb comes from and refers to an ‘elsewhere’, whose violence erupts into the boys’ present and threatens the security of their future. The Devil’s Backbone’s premier scene thus underscores the film’s gothic identification and raises an important question: why choose the gothic to remember and mediate a narrative of national, historical trauma? (2004: 292)
The bomb functions as a multiple signifier, a literal reminder of the presence of war even in this apparently isolated place (we see it dropping randomly from the bomb bay of a plane in a shot that has echoes of traditional black-and-white war movies and even Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy Dr Strangelove) as well as an almost absurdly surreal phallic totem around which the narrative unfolds. It acts as a silent commentary on the arbitrary violence resulting from recurring human conflict, ticking inexorably even though it has apparently been ‘defused’ but cannot be moved. It’s also a perhaps over-determined symbol of the hyper-masculinity embodied in Jacinto, the proto-fascist who finally enacts the explosive violence that the bomb itself fails to unleash in the orphanage, suggesting that the human is always more dangerous than the machine. As del Toro has said, ‘[a]s the movie progresses, you realize that the ones you have to fear are the living, not the dead’ (Chun 2002: 31). The bomb also carries a symbolic payload of trauma as a signifier of the memory of war that can never fully be ‘defused’ or repressed, not only the ‘silenced horrors of the Spanish Civil War’ that have been supposedly ‘dealt with’ in Spanish political, historical and cultural memory, but also the spectre of ongoing twenty-first-century wars in which dead children are often the tragic but invisible collateral damage. As Brinks later argues, the Gothic’s concern with the return of the repressed renders it a particularly appropriate narrative mode for the film, as it is ‘a mode of symbolization that expressly seeks to explore what a culture prohibits, fears, or desires to the point of its repression, denial, or abjection’ (Brinks 2004: 292).
In an alchemic combination that is symptomatic of del Toro’s sometimes dizzying visual eclecticism (Maria Delgado has dubbed it ‘comic-book-meets Goya’) the other key literary inspiration for the film came from a very different genre from the high cultural matter of English Gothic fiction – the popular comic strip. Carlos Giménez’s comic strip Paracuellos, the first series of which began in 1976 in the early stages of Spain’s transition to democracy, deals with the artist’s own traumatic experiences in the orphan homes (Hogares de Auxilio Social) established by the Franco regime after the Civil War, mainly for the children of Republicans killed during the conflict, and has been recognized as a significant text within its genre and beyond. As Carmen Moreno-Nuño Antonio suggests, ‘Paracuellos is part of the cultural production that tries to recover, through fiction, a collective (rather than historic) memory about the war, the post-war years, and the repression of the Franco regime, which had been ignored and silenced in Spain’ (2009). Giménez collaborated with del Toro on aspects of storyboarding and design for the film, and a storyboard for this aforementioned scene involving Carlos and the bomb can be viewed on his website. (Giménez also designed the ‘Pale Man’ scene in Pan’s Labyrinth.) By drawing on a popular cultural mode such as the comic book, del Toro not only reveals his great admiration for the form, which manifests itself in later films such as Hellboy, Hellboy II and Blade II, but also his willingness to meld and merge radically contrasted influences – from eighteenth-century Gothic fiction to twentieth-century graphic fiction. This splicing of film and comic book genres also stresses a key feature: the centrality of the child’s experience; camera angles and movement mirror the children’s perspective throughout, as do Giménez’s storyboards and comic strips. As Karen Lury has noted: ‘The structure, colour and composition of the comic strip are evident in both of del Toro’s Spanish Civil War films’ (2010: 114). These comic-strip techniques are employed from the outset – for example, in the scene where Carlos first sees the ghost, very early in the film. In a series of shots that seem to mimic the comic strip Carlos looks towards the archway where he sees the ghostly figure but is distracted by noise and looks away only to find the figure has vanished when he looks again. In a discussion of the film’s transnational credentials, Antonio Lázaro-Reboll has also emphasized the important role played by Giménez’s personal experience in its creation:
Giménez documents a reservoir of personal memories, having himself lived in one of these orphanages for several years. Giménez’s collaboration extends from the casting of the children to the narrative, through the recreation of specific dialogues, episodes and themes reminiscent of Paracuellos (privation and suffering, fear and bullying, survival and solidarity), and to the mise-en-scène, in particular lighting, costume, props, and décor, which contributes to recreate the atmosphere of the Auxilio Social orphanages. Likewise, Giménez’s aesthetic and rhetorical conventions are translated into other stylistic devices, for del Toro repeatedly draws links to the comic book syntax and grammar through framing and the position of the camera. (Lázaro-Reboll 2007: 48)
The trauma of lost and stolen childhoods that Giménez explores in Paracuellos gives the film its historical and cultural specificity which is underpinned by other cultural sources such as the Gothic and the classic literature of childhood, always an intertextual presence in del Toro’s work. Del Toro’s penchant for drawing on texts from the golden ages of English children’s literature is evidenced by the persistent presence of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in Pan’s Labyrinth. In The Devil’s Backbone the reference point is perhaps more J.M. Barrie’s tragic-comic Peter Pan story, with its ‘lost boys’, pervasive sense of childhoods that are forever missing or past, and children engaged with an ongoing battle with a dominant, unreadable and destructive adult world. For Del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone is the boys’ story – a companion piece to the female equivalent in the latter film. Interestingly, Barrie’s classic story is used as a key intertext in Bayona’s The Orphanage, which narrates a similar story of stolen childhoods. Just as the children in the orphanage represent the Spanish people, so the ghost Santi embodies both a traumatic past and a lost future – he is one of the disappeared, the ‘desaparecidos’ whose absent presence and lost childhood haunts not only Spanish and South American history but also the history of other ongoing sites of conflict, such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
The notion of haunting, of the return of the repressed as historical memory, encompasses another image used in The Devil’s Backbone when defining spectrality. Del Toro characteristically uses a narrative framing device in the voice-overs that bookend The Devil’s Backbone and that attempt to articulate the nature of a ghost and haunting. The reiterated voice-over, revealed at the end to be that of Dr Casares’, talks of a ghost as ‘an insect trapped in amber’ which gives both visual and aural expression to a key aspect of trauma – the notion of repetition. Citing Freud, Enrique Ajuria Ibarra defines trauma as ‘this persistent coming back of the unconscious to a site that has left a mark upon the subject; the unconscious attempts to develop an understanding of it, whilst the ego seeks to avoid it’ (2012: 62). Roger Luckhurst has discussed the relationship between Gothic and trauma thus: ‘Post-traumatic experience is intrinsically uncanny, finding cultural expression in ghostly visitations, prophetic dread, spooky coincidence or telepathic transfer … ’ (2008: 98). Santi repeatedly returns to the scene of his death, always attempting to draw his ‘double’ Carlos to the focus of his lost narrative, communicating mainly through sound rather than language. Carlos in turn acts as a messenger, a go-between negotiating real and other worlds in order to construct a narration of release (interestingly, his name echoes that of King Juan Carlos, Franco’s chosen successor, who helped negotiate the transition from autocracy to democracy after the dictator’s death). The older Jaime has attempted this through art (a hint here of Giménez’s involvement and del Toro’s own use of sketching as a source of imagination and inspiration) but will not share his responses, driven by the same kind of egotistical individualism that defines and destroys his ‘double’ Jacinto, until forced to by Carlos. Del Toro has talked about the film being constructed ‘on a rhyme’, which operates internally via the kind of doubling of characters and images noted by James Rose in his guide to the film, but which also permeates much of the director’s corpus of work. His films ‘rhyme’ with each other to a greater or lesser extent, suggesting perhaps an uncanny return to repeated motifs and ideas that cannot be fully resolved.
Exploring the figure of the double in trauma narratives, Jacob Winnberg cites both Luckhurst and Cathy Caruth on the treatment of trauma in recent narrative. He notes Luckhurst’s comment that recent trauma narratives in fiction have ‘played around with narrative time, disrupting linearity, suspending logical causation, running out of temporal sequence, working backwards toward the inaugurating traumatic event, or playing with belated revelations that retrospectively rewrite narrative significance’ (in Winnberg 2013: 233). Winnberg also relates this ‘poetics of trauma’ associated with narrative discontinuity to the figure of the double or doubling – another classic Gothic device. He cites Caruth’s argument that trauma is always ‘a double wound … not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor’ (233). These insights into narrative and trauma help locate and illuminate del Toro’s narrative strategies in The Devil’s Backbone, where a relatively sequential and realist central narrative is disrupted by framing sequences narrated by a ghost and the significant use of doubling, repetition and flashback. Indeed, the film begins with a bravura montage of flashbacks that narrate Santi’s death in fragments. These strategies are taken further in Pan’s Labyrinth, where the whole film is essentially a flashback as Ofelia apparently lies dying.
The question of release or liberation from trauma has been a crucial point of debate in analyses of del Toro’s film. Some critics have focused more on the possibility of overcoming the traumatic legacy of war (Hardcastle 2005; Labanyi 2002) through the recognition of hauntological traces. Others, such as Lázaro- Reboll (2007), have suggested that this kind of approach may be in danger of becoming complicit with official state narratives of reconciliation and consensus that can produce what he terms ‘collective amnesia’ (2007: 47). Interestingly he is writing in 2007, the year of the passing of the Law of Historical Memory which officially condemned Francoism and inscribed state help in the tracing of lost victims of the Civil War and Franco’s regime. Del Toro’s film seems to resist notions of liberation and catharsis in that the haunting seems to continue beyond the end of the narrative, denying the possibility of any kind of full exorcism. Towards the end of the film we see Santi standing over the pool, despite the apparent achievement of his goal to pull Jacinto into his limbo state; the final voice in the film is Dr Casares, himself now a ghostly figure seen at a window, echoing the liminal spaces, in particular thresholds, where Santi is often seen as he shifts between worlds. In one of the film’s many examples of uncanny repetition with slight variation, Casares repeats the opening lines of the film with one additional statement, ‘A ghost, that is what I am’, ironically affirming an identity he has lacked throughout the film. He observes the few remaining boys stagger in the unyielding sunlight on an unknown journey, possibly towards death.
The ambiguous nature of this ending where the trauma associated with the ghost figure is repeated, even doubled in the shots of Santi and Casares, is emphasized in a relevant example of del Toro’s ‘rhyming’ between films. The actors playing Carlos and Jaime reappear in Pan’s Labyrinth as young republican guerrillas fighting on after the end of the war who are killed in a raid by the fascist Vidal and his soldiers. The scene shows the Carlos figure dead and Jaime alive but badly wounded. Vidal aims his gun at him and the young guerrilla pushes it away. When Vidal realizes he is too badly wounded to be tortured into talking, his peremptorily shoots him through the hand, another rhyming image which associates the resultant ‘stigmata’ with the martyred Christ. This is a kind of reverse image of the monstrous Pale Man’s hands, which feature prominently in the imagery of Pan’s Labyrinth and another example of the way in which religious imagery pervades del Toro’s film. Although the ending of The Devil’s Backbone depicts the boys successfully forming into a cohesive community that can defeat Jacinto and avenge Santi, the implication here is that this is ultimately an inadequate defence against the powerful political and military machinery of state fascism. Characteristically in his movies, del Toro sets resistant and/or alienated individuals in opposition to corporate or state power – a familiar aspect of modernity that he treats in highly unusual ways. Although the double, even triple endings of Pan’s Labyrinth are more broadly positive, with some apparent resolution of trauma, they exist paradoxically within a known historical context that saw the triumph of Franco-ism and fascism in Spain. Despite Vidal’s defeat we know, of course, that what he represents is ultimately triumphant. The boys’ communal action in The Devil’s Backbone also depicts their own reliance on the kind of violence that has hitherto oppressed them. Their use of homemade weapons with which to attack Jacinto recalls the pack behaviour in Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and the casual violence of the boys in Buñuel’s Los Olvidados. As Ellen Brinks argues, ‘[w]hile this cathartic violence offers release, a definite psychological pleasure for the boys and for the viewing audience, the film avoids suggesting that it represents some kind of wish-fulfilment, a fantasmatic republican triumph’ (2004: 304). Del Toro has spoken of his careful use of soundtrack music at this point in the film. In fact there is no climactic scoring here, just the distant sound of the tango in order ‘to avoid putting any music there that would seem to approve the act of violence’ (Chun 2002: 30). Paul Julian Smith noted in his review for Sight and Sound (December 2001):
[T]he conflict between brutal Spaniard Jacinto (played by matinee idol Eduardo Noriega, now hardened into a convincingly repellent macho) and kindly Casares (Luppi) is played out through their choice of music: the traditional Spanish songs of Imperio Argentina (Spanish collaborator with the Nazis) or the tangos of Argentine national hero Carlos Gardel.
In the film’s obsessive doubling, Jaime is constructed as a younger potential version of Jacinto. In the first shot we see of them they are closely juxtaposed and Jacinto is ironically hammering a pole into the ground that has an uncanny resemblance to the ones with which he is finally attacked by the boys. Jaime’s release from this particular trap of repetition is one of the more optimistic of the film’s outcomes. His trauma of guilt and repression is overcome by a kind of Freudian talking cure where Carlos acts as an intermediary.
The film’s title places at its centre an image of the traumatized human body that particularly disturbs our sense of what childhood and, by implication, humanity can embody. If in Western culture we have traditionally projected onto childhood images of future hope and optimism, of innocence and purity, then the sick or dying child, the unborn or malformed foetus represents a traumatic reversal, a seeming denial of such cultural givens. Del Toro’s films after Cronos repeatedly make use of such images as a key aspect of the narrative arc. Hence the plot of Mimic revolves around the saving of children’s lives from a deadly disease and the film opens with scenes of children dead or dying in a hospital ward; Pan’s Labyrinth’s opening and closing shots include the depiction of a child bleeding to death. In the opening flashback of The Devil’s Backbone we see a bleeding child who, as the ghost Santi, haunts the orphanage. Furthermore the title, title sequence and key image of the film reference the foetuses preserved in the amber liquid that Dr Casares sells as an aphrodisiac in the village to support the orphanage. Del Toro has explained the origins of the titular phrase in the DVD extra accompanying the Blu-ray edition of the film. El Espinazo del Diablo is a mountain range located near Durango in Mexico with a traditional mythic significance as a battleground between God and the Devil, where the latter is left defeated on earth after the triumphant God disappears. Hence El Espinazo emerges as a metaphor for the persistent presence of evil on earth and, by implication, in humans. In a central scene Casares explains to Carlos that the foetuses preserved in amber liquid limbo are superstitiously believed by the villages to be a product of sin. Rather like the orphans themselves they are believed to be ‘nobody’s children’, supposedly a physical manifestation of human transgression, although ironically the liquid is thought to be curative for a number of ills, including impotence. Hence the rationalist Casares, though scorning such irrational beliefs, still takes the liquid for his own erectile problems, which are contrasted with the hyper-virility of the proto-fascist Jacinto. Victoria Nelson reads the significance of the foetuses through the lens of medieval alchemy, an approach that emphasizes the idea of personal and physical entrapment but that also stresses the ways in which ideas of alchemical transformation are undermined:
[T]he foetus in a glass jar – an image the references alchemy’s famous homunculus, a microcosmic ‘little man’, transformed within the alchemical retort in to a bringer of new life and possibilities – is the iconic opening image of The Devil’s Backbone. As in Cronos, here the crucible imprisons rather than transforms … Far from carrying hope of a new life, in the universe of this story the dead babies are equivalent to … the lost souls, adults as well as children, trapped in the orphanage … ’I think that’s what the world does to kids, he said to an Australian interviewer, ‘You are born into your family jar, and you grow into the shape of it, and the rest of your life you are limping like a motherfucker’. (Nelson 2012: 229–230)
The uncanny, ghostly foetuses rhyme visually and thematically with the traumatized body of Santi – another child preserved in the amniotic amber fluid of time. The body horror associated with the foetuses (Carlos escapes from the room as soon as possible, having refused some of the amber liquid) also references the deforming impact of war and fascism on humanity and in particular children. In this context the children are both the damaged detritus of war and Spain itself. The film utilizes instances of body trauma throughout – children’s bodies in particular are cut, maimed and murdered, culminating in the climatic and explosive scenes with which the film ends, foreshadowed by Santi’s prophetic warning, ‘Many will die’, and the final image of damaged children stumbling away from the orphanage. Other adult bodies are sites of trauma or damage – notably Carmen’s amputated leg and Casares’s sexual impotence (he is only able to exert power after his death). Del Toro also exploits the irony that the outwardly most ‘beautiful’ body, that of the superficially handsome Jacinto, is in fact the most deformed of all. In some ways the film is an account of his tragedy, as he is another ‘nobody’s child’ with only a ghostly blurred photo of his parents to define his identity. Horror’s obsessive concern with the body is a critical commonplace but interestingly in The Devil’s Backbone the central obsession seems to be with wholeness. As del Toro says in the opening quote above, all the characters are ghosts, and one of the ways in which this is manifested is in their incompleteness, either physical, emotional or psychological. Anna Powell has noted that ‘[h]orror film obsessively returns to the trope of wholeness, its consequent graphic disintegration and its possible renewal’ (2006: 88). In The Devil’s Backbone wholeness of a kind is re-established by the communal actions of the children, but this is depicted with considerable ambiguity and trauma endures beyond the boundaries of the narrative.
Like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth is also heavily influenced by Spanish cinematic traditions, particularly in its representation of Spanish history and the concomitant issues of trauma, historical memory and political resistance. The film provides a stark and often disturbing representation of war alongside fantastic elements that parallel and blend with the violent realities of Franco’s ‘clean new Spain’ as described by the film’s fascist military. Once again Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive provides del Toro with a powerful narrative template – a central girl figure who develops an imaginative space in response to the traumatic personal and political contexts that surround her, shaped by the dominant realities of the period after the end of the Civil War (Erice’s film is set in 1940, four years earlier than Pan’s Labyrinth). It is as though del Toro wants to tell the stories that are necessarily silenced or occluded in Erice’s film, which was still subject to the dead hand of Francoism. For example, the single anonymous resistance fighter encountered by Ana in a brief, silent but, for her, profoundly disturbing relationship is extensively developed into the forest-dwelling guerrillas in Pan’s Labyrinth who are drawn in some detail and whose final triumph over the fascist Vidal in claiming and naming his son offers a proleptic vision of a future democratic Spain post-Franco. The ultimately traumatized Ana, who ends Erice’s film asserting an uncertain identity, becomes the older and assertively active Ofelia. The similarly named Ana in Saura’s Cría Cuervos (1976) (played again by the wide-eyed Ana Torrent) is another filmic forerunner of Ofelia who attempts acts of rebellion against oppressive members of her family but is ultimately powerless – the film ends with her meekly going to school. In her persistent acts of resistance and disobedience Ofelia contradicts the image of female passivity and victimization implied in the literary connotations of her name and negotiates a path through the threatening trials of both real and fantastic worlds. The differences between the two films extend also into their visual and cinematographic qualities. Erice’s film is characterized by a minimalist and austerely repressed aesthetic, shot in long, still sequences that are drained of colour and that evoke the apparently bleak emptiness of the lives portrayed. In contrast, Pan’s Labyrinth revels in its use of distinctive colour palettes consisting of cool, dark blues and rich crimsons and golds that distinguish the different worlds that the film inhabits – fascist militarism, the forest and the realm of the fantastic. Although these are initially coded (for example, blue associated with the coldly inhuman Vidal and his brutal ideology) the film increasing blurs the distinctions between palettes in order to avoid overly simplistic binarism. The fantasy world of the labyrinth, from which the ambivalent and potentially sinister figure of the Faun emerges like some archaic figure frozen in time and nature, is also cast in blue, albeit with a green tinge appropriate to the natural world. In contrast to the deliberately static camerawork of the Erice, with its prevailing sense of an environment frozen in time and emotionally arrested, Pan’s Labyrinth is shot by Guillermo Navarro with a restless fluidity that matches the questing and questioning nature of the central child figure. The camera twists and turns, continually moving above and around the characters. It acts as a witness to horror – early in the film we experience head-on the brutal summary ‘execution’ of a father and son by Vidal – and as an endorsement of the child’s vision as it follows and traces the movements of Ofelia. Indeed, the film is permeated by images of sight and seeing, beginning with an almost Hitchcockian shot in the opening frame narrative that descends into Ofelia’s eye and an early sequence in the ‘main’ narrative where Ofelia places a stone eye back into the totemic figure at the edge of the forest, thus releasing the fantastic, in the metamorphic shape of the insect, into the real. Paul Julian Smith (2006) has noted the echo here of an uncanny school-room scene in Erice’s film, where Ana places the eyes on a mannequin figure, implying the child’s capacity for seeing that which lies beyond the myopic vision of the adult. Erice depicts his shy, almost silent character struggling to move away from the physical and ideological confines of home, school and village. In doing so she internalizes the figure of the monstrous Other, Frankenstein’s creature, which she has seen in a village showing of Whale’s film, as an imaginative correlative for her own feelings. Del Toro’s character, older and more confident, has the crucial benefit of imaginative fiction – we first see her tracing the outline of an Alice-type figure in her book as she travels with her sceptical mother – which provides her with an ongoing and evolving conceptual framework for her own experiences that transcends and transforms the real.
Another comparable Spanish film that employs fairy tale/mythic motifs in order to depict a transformation from dictatorship to democracy is Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón’s El Corazón del Bosque (Heart of the Forest (1979)). The film depicts the conflict between the Resistance and the Civil Guards in 1942 and draws on many symbolic referents to portray the conflict as a mythic battle for heart of Spain. The film also draws upon fairy tale in order to invoke this struggle, and many familiar motifs are present. For example, food is used to suggest symbolically transformation and the formation of bonds; songs contain clues used to complete a journey; and a labyrinth is found in the depths of the forest. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Aragón’s film creates a narrative where, as John Hopewell suggests, ‘myth and ideology lend sense to an otherwise chaotic and valueless world’ (1986: 174). Stranded in a traumatic world which makes little sense to her and where her continued safety is at risk, Ofelia gains access to a transformative world in which fantasy acts both as an escape and also as a means of transcendence. The ability to move between worlds does not solely offer an escape, though; it also begins to unify the two into a more consistent whole. She has the ability to flee from the realm of reality to fantasy, but perhaps more importantly, she is able successfully (but not painlessly) to shift between the estate and the forest, between childhood and adulthood and between dictatorship to democracy and in doing so gains a fuller perspective of the whole. The dialogic relation between the discourses of literary fairy tale and historic referents draws attention to the prominence of images and tropes in socio-political mythmaking. Gillian Rose refers to the ways in which language, images and symbolic referents dictate meaning ‘and a particular knowledge about the world which shapes how the world is understood and how things are done in it’ (2007: 136). Intertextual strategies which meld together loaded images of fascism and fairy-tale tropes deconstruct the fact/fiction dichotomy and suggest fantasy as a means of reading historical trauma. Isabel Santaolalla has identified the role of the forest as a motif symbolizing amongst other things an ‘alternative to dictatorial oppression’ (1999: 323). In another film by Carlos Saura, The Hunt (La Caza (1991)), a day of hunting rabbits acts as a motif of national conflict. During one particularly violent scene in Pan’s Labyrinth, a starving father and son are caught hunting rabbits and killed by Vidal who assumes that they are part of the resistance. Vidal and his companions are depicted eating the rabbits in the next scene. This illustrates the unchecked brutality of Vidal’s rule and employs the image of the rabbits as a symbol of rural Spain devoured by totalitarianism, drawing from existing cinema to tackle the Civil War and its legacies. In Cría Cuervos Saura uses another codified discourse for a film that was made right at the very end of the Franco era. Here the subject matter is a dysfunctional family headed by a patriarchal dictatorial and womanizing military figure who dies in the arms of his mistress at the beginning of the film. His oppressed wife, a talented pianist played by Geraldine Chaplin, is already dead of a painful cancer before the film begins and returns as a longed-for figure in the imagination of one of her three daughters, Ana. As Charles Derry suggests, she is representative of a ‘Spain defeated and killed by Franco in the Civil War’ (2009: 321). The film’s shifts in time between a politically transitional mid-1970s, a later time (the 1990s) when the child Ana has grown up and a more distant personal and political past suggested by jumbled photographs that begin the film and with which the mute grandmother is obsessed. Here masculinity is associated with a rigid and emotionally barren fascism that has silenced women or made them invisible, although in both Erice’s and Saura’s films it is a female child who attempts to articulate, albeit haltingly, some resistance to a male hegemony. Del Toro develops this gender binarism further in both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both of which have female characters who attempt to exert agency.
The representation of Spain is dominated by a persistent traumatic duality and del Toro returns in Pan’ Labyrinth to his interest in doubling and split identity, as Ofelia and her mother find themselves in a world deeply torn by factions. This is accentuated by the underworld, the alternate space where the conventions of the ‘real’ world are contrasted and revealed as fragile and often destructive constructs. Although it may seem the narrative takes place in two (increasingly interconnected) worlds, one real and one fantastic, another dual environment can be seen: the world of the estate and the forest. The estate, controlled by Captain Vidal and his Falangist forces, is ruled by fear and a fascistic insistence on order, rules, systems and control. This is symbolized by the pervasive presence of time-pieces, locks, keys – characteristic mechanical paraphernalia for a del Toro film – as well as uniformed soldiers who respond as automata to Vidal’s orders. The forest is inhabited by the Resistance forces, a world symbolized by the organic and archaic, where the apparent timelessness of the forest is itself in resistance to the temporal rigidity enforced by Captain Vidal. This is powerfully visualized in the film by the transformation of the mill in which Vidal situates his headquarters. Victoria Nelson suggests that ‘[t]he mill’s ancient cog-and-wheels innards, visible in the room where Captain Vidal is camped, are co-equal with the mechanism of the watch that he obsessively repairs, cleans, and rewinds, endlessly resuscitating it from mechanical death’ (2012: 228). As Margaret Yolcom (2008) also notes, the mill has had its original purpose as a supplier of fundamental communal needs, the literal bread of life, perverted – the mill wheels lie abandoned at the rear of Vidal’s study replaced by the wheels and cogs of his father’s watch, symbolizing a relentless burden from the past to which even Vidal is subject. The mill’s function as a source of life and sustenance is paralleled in its status as a generic fairy-tale setting, as del Toro emphasizes that we not only need bread (which arrives at one point in the film as a ‘gift’ from Franco’s fascist regime) but also the psychological, emotional and cultural nourishment provided by stories and the creative imagination. The mill also carries a number of important Spanish cultural referents, from the windmills of Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Velasquez, whose painting Old Woman Cooking Eggs (c. 1618) is evoked in the film’s scenes of interior domestic life as Mercedes and the other women prepare food for Vidal. The masculine/feminine binary that is constructed here and elsewhere serves to extend the film’s exploration of duality into gender politics. For del Toro ‘fascism is definitely a male concern and a boy’s game’ (Kermode 2006a: 24). Interestingly, the fascist Vidal, although brutal and vicious throughout, is shown also to be burdened by an oppressive masculinity and patriarchy that originates in the memory of his dead father, whose watch is such an obsessive object of attention for him. There are again echoes here of Erice’s film as the father’s pocket watch is found on the dead body of the guerrilla befriended by Ana, his daughter. Del Toro implies that Vidal’s obsessive narcissism (we often see him gazing in the mirror) has its traumatized, self-destructive edge through a brief scene where Vidal appears to mime slitting his own throat whilst shaving. Hence, although he is cast as the villainous step-parent of classic fairy tale, Vidal enacts a more complex set of behavioural characteristics including a thoroughly perverse eroticism or homoeroticism as he lovingly handles his instruments of torture and talks of becoming intimate with his victims. Here, as in the figure of Jacinto in The Devil’s Backbone, the externally handsome male body apparently exuding an uncomplicated, univocal masculinity is shown to be conflicted, perverse and potentially self-destructive. These powerful male bodies are violated or ‘cut’ by those deemed to be insignificant or invisible, notably women in the form of Mercedes in Pan’s Labyrinth and the children in The Devil’s Backbone. From their apparent positions of male supremacy they become both monstrous and other, akin to figures of horror such as the Pale Man, weighed down by a will to power that is expressed in the gold that contributes to Jacinto’s drowning and the name of the father which Vidal evokes in a futile gesture before his death. He asks Mercedes to tell his son the time of his death in an uncanny repetition of the narrative surrounding his father’s supposed heroic demise, recounted earlier by another officer – a tale, initially rejected by Vidal, in which his father fell in battle, breaking the mechanism so that his son will remember the moment of his death.
Time, along with sight, is a crucial metaphoric resource in Pan’s Labyrinth. Indeed, all del Toro’s films could be described as meditations on time and mortality – a theme initiated by his first major film, Cronos. In Pan’s Labyrinth how a character constructs the meaning of time becomes a litmus test for selfhood. The fairy-tale story of Princess Moanna which is narrated at the beginning of the film tells of her father’s pledge to wait to the end of time for her return, enacting the classic fairy-tale dislocation of temporal rigidity and sequentiality, but also offering a different vision of the paternal, one that is loving and loyal. From ‘Once upon a time’ to ‘happily ever after’ time is a pervasive element of stories for and about children and time is often subverted, reshaped and made inconsistent. Juliet Dusinberre states, ‘Some writers for children realise[d] that the rejection of the moral and improving tale implied a rejection of cause and consequence, of destinies worked out in time. [They] recognised that the idea of a sequence was foreign to the young child’ (1999: 151).
This view of time is in sharp contrast with the fascistic insistence upon rigid and recorded linear systems which can be seen in Vidal’s near-obsession with maintaining correct and regimented temporal structures and his neurotic connection to the paternal watch, which as the homophone suggests exerts a continual watch or gaze over him. Here del Toro draws together elements of fascist propaganda concerning temporal ‘efficiency’ with the symbolic uses of timepieces in fairy-tale narratives, including of course a key intertext for del Toro’s films such as Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Vidal seeks to control time in order to control his and others’ destiny, attempting to ‘fix’ time and maintain the order and power of patriarchal law. Images of time and control are echoed in the hour-glass that Ofelia has to obey in her second quest, the encounter with that other monstrous vision of patriarchy, the Pale Man, as though the repressive temporal regime associated with Vidal has ‘leaked’ into the world of fantasy. Ofelia finds herself caught between the regimented here and now and the ancient world of the faun and the fantasy realm in which time moves slowly across aeons and can even be reversed – the nameless Faun visibly grows younger during the film and the viewer also witnesses time going backwards at the beginning of the film. This conversation between the ancient/mythic/historic and the present is a repeated trope in del Toro’s oeuvre, recurring in his most recent film Pacific Rim in the battles between machine-led modernity and near-primordial monsters, the Kaiju. Ofelia finds herself caught in a critical moment in history and forced to make a decision between childhood reliance and adult independence which ironically sees her end the narrative as a perpetually young princess. Interestingly, Victoria Nelson finds a strong link here to the alchemic motif, suggesting that ‘[t]he prime alchemist in Pan’s Labyrinth is none other than Ofelia, and most of the transformations in both worlds, material and supernatural, mirror her own moral development toward goodness’ (2012: 230). Nelson uses the example of the transformation of the ‘enchanted world’ that takes place early in the film, as shown in the morphing of the stick-like insects into Rackham-esque fairies. Quoting del Toro’s own description of it as ‘a magical universe that’s been left out in the rain too long’, she suggests that ‘[t]hough mainstream audiences are quick to interpret this transformation as Ofelia’s own make-believe fantasy, it also indicates that she has already gained the magical ability to change objects in her surroundings simply by focusing her awareness on them’ (2012: 230).
Significantly, where films such as El Corazón del Bosque employ the adult male hero in its quest narrative, Pan’s Labyrinth uses the female child. Children and particularly adolescents act as narrative agents in many fantasy narratives. Pan’s Labyrinth is another text which uses fantasy as a means of commenting upon the troubled world of twentieth-century history. What is striking about the film is not the way in which the real and fantasy worlds are separate but interconnected by magical portals, but the way in which they are revealed as one chaotic yet interdependent environment. From the outset, where Ofelia sees a nymph in the outskirts of the forest, it is made clear that the fantasy world is not automatically an alternative to the strife of the real. Moreover, the fantasy world is a dangerous and terrifying place and the faun is by no means a benevolent guide; indeed he arguably entices Ofelia into danger and ultimately death and seeks to harm her newborn brother at the end of the narrative. Ofelia bears witness to a world in which death and conflict are impossible to escape and it is resilience rather than respite that keeps her alive for so long. Vicky Lebeau identifies a trend in cinema where the child acts as ‘a figure through which to explore the legacy of war and genocide during the twentieth century’ (2008: 141). She goes on to notice how such films are filled with ‘painful iconography’ where the child is a ‘radically traumatised … participant in adult hostilities’ (142). The opening montage which acts as a frame for the main narrative in a way that rhymes with the initial sequence of The Devil’s Backbone reveals del Toro’s take on this ‘painful iconography’. After the production credits the film opens with a blank black screen over which the muted sound of a softly hummed lullaby can be heard along with a distant wind, joined by the sound of rapid breathing. The caption ‘España 1944’ (the lullaby an elegy for a lost nation?) is followed by nondiegetic material in the form of explanatory text setting the historical context for the film. Del Toro plays with viewer expectations here because instead of conventional military scenes or establishing shots of the Spanish landscape we see an indistinct dark screen, maybe rocks and stones. The shot then moves up to the apparently vertical form of a young girl lying horizontally on the ground with a bloodied hand outstretched in a position that references the crucifixion and stigmata of Christ. The camera spirals to show the girl in a horizontal position – accompanied by the continued humming of the lullaby supported by a simple rocking three-note musical accompaniment above, which can be heard by her continued rapid breathing. Her close-up face, filmed in a nocturnal grey-blue, fills the screen. It is at this very early point that there is a shift between reality and the fantastic as blood trickles back into the girl’s nose as she apparently and impossibly returns to life. When this is complete the male voice-over begins with a classic fairy-tale opening ‘A long time ago’ in order to tell the story of Princess Moanna escaping into the ‘real’ world. When the Princess emerges into sunlight (seen as a brilliant blinding white light that fills the screen as the initial black had done) the first images of reality are of the remains of the village of Belchite near Zaragoza, the site of a key battle during the Civil War in 1937, the ruins of which have been left as a memorial. As the voice-over talks of the memory loss, sickness and pain that the fairy-tale princess experiences, so the empty shells of churches and buildings still standing appear but are somehow lost in the process of national forgetting that post-dated the war, a process that was beginning to be officially reversed as the film was released. The hollowed-out remnants of a Catholicism devalued by its complicity with violence and oppression rhymes with the passing references to defunct iconographies that occur throughout del Toro’s earlier films. The sequence ends with a replay of the child in the car arriving at the place of trauma and transformation that del Toro used at the opening of The Devil’s Backbone. In his DVD commentary, del Toro speaks of the problems he had with this opening which resolved once he had the image of the bleeding child and established the sense that the film is about a girl giving birth to herself ‘the way she wanted to be’.
The juxtaposition and intersection of reality and fantasy often requires the use of non-fictional images and icons and this is also the case with Pan’s Labyrinth. One of the most interesting and surprising of these is the way in which the appearance of the central child heroine of the film, Ofelia, mirrors that of Anne Frank, probably the most famous victim of twentieth-century wartime atrocities. The film is set in 1944, the year Anne and her family were taken from hiding in their house in Amsterdam by the Nazi SS – Pan’s Labyrinth also contains other references to child victims of the Nazi death camps, most notably the pile of discarded children’s shoes that Ofelia notices in the underground lair of the Pale Man monster. The striking facial resemblances in the film (even down to the parting of her hair) between the young actress who plays Ofelia, Ivana Baquero, and the famous remaining photographs of Anne Frank suggest that parallels can be drawn between the two. Both girls are on the verge of puberty, both create imaginative and creative spaces for themselves in order to deal with the traumatic experience of oppression and entrapment. Like Anne, Ofelia ‘writes’ herself into existence as an autonomous being, employing the realm of the imagination as a retreat from trauma as well as a space for self-actualization and resistance. There are, of course, major differences between the texts. Anne Frank’s Diary explores her growing awareness of sexuality and her excitement at the changes taking place in her body; in contrast, Ofelia apparently remains in a state of pre-pubescent innocence, despite the traumatic images of the female body she encounters during her mother’s difficult pregnancy, particularly when she nearly miscarries. Pan’s Labyrinth is saturated with visual images that evoke the female body and in particular the womb (imagery that is used in a very different context in Pacific Rim). From the fig tree that models the shape of fallopian tubes, the visceral womb-like subterranean world that Ofelia explores as one of her trials and the womb-encased foetus that fills the screen as she ‘talks’ to her as yet unborn brother, del Toro repeatedly visualizes a process of birthing which is traumatic and painful. This, of course, relates paradoxically directly to the traumatic birth of a ‘clean new Spain’ that is the product of the fascist Francoist project which, in the context of the film, results in the death of two of the three main female characters. In this respect the film does construct a binarism based on gender – fascism grows from a sterile masculinity that does not ‘see’ women, who are barely visible and largely expendable constructs employed in the furthering of male hegemony in state and church. This is precisely the point that Mercedes makes in her confrontation with Vidal. Women are possibly seen as complicit with this. Ofelia’s mother Carmen dies as a result of her compliance and there are vulture-like women in attendance at Vidal’s banquet. However, set against this is the powerful narrative of Ofelia/Moanna giving birth to herself, which apparently ends in death for both figures but which also tells a crucial story of disobedience and the painful creation of autonomous selfhood.
As in the case of Carlos in The Devil’s Backbone, Ofelia’s trauma is also heightened by the fact as she is orphaned in the course of the film. Three potential substitute parental figures emerge in the form of Vidal, The Faun and Mercedes (the housekeeper and Resistance spy). However, each potential surrogate wants to take a part of Ofelia’s innocence and power and ultimately place her in danger. Mercedes is far more of a caring figure than the callous Vidal or the manipulative Faun; however, her interest in Ofelia is not entirely benevolent and she too seems aware that in recruiting the child, she gains a stake in future power struggles. Rather than acting as a gentle protectress, a white witch of the forest illuminated by a maternal glow, Mercedes is fully aware that Ofelia faces a perilous trial of fire. In comparison to the passivity of Ofelia’s birth mother, she is therefore a more complex and layered representation of femininity. Ofelia’s eventual sacrifice tips the balance of power and Mercedes becomes the custodian of Vidal’s infant son and in doing so symbolically takes control of the future of Spain, but only after a fierce and hard fought battle where children perish. Del Toro is never afraid to implicate children in the potentially deadly politics of power. In this respect, the spectacle of children in the midst of trauma is itself scrutinized and the perverse nature of such spectacle revealed. What is constant in all of the potential paths that Ofelia is presented with is the inevitability of change and the pain that comes with this. Rosemary Jackson explores the ways in which metamorphosis reveals an unconscious desire/fear dichotomy and the impossibility and implausibility of escape:
This is fundamental to Pan’s Labyrinth. It is on the one hand a war narrative in which the child bears witness to the traumatic historic event and on the other a fantasy which draws on existing children’s literature as vehicle for symbolic discourse. However, neither world takes precedence and as a result Ofelia dies between the two, torn apart by the apparent failure of each to work in symbiosis without destruction. Whereas (as the Faun explains) the fantasy dimension is ancient and slow moving, the swift and violent revolutions of the twentieth century make it impossible for both to coexist without violent consequences and Ofelia is a victim of these ultimately incompatible spheres, exiting at the end of the film and returning ‘home’ to her parents who are rulers of the fantasy realm.
Del Toro has spoken of the film’s relationship to events of the early twenty-first century, in particular the attacks in New York on September 11th 2001. The Devil’s Backbone first played at the Toronto Film Festival two days before and Pan’s Labyrinth appeared exactly five years later, mirroring the difference between the periods of the two films, 1939 and 1944, respectively. The unresolved ambiguity of the earlier film is echoed in the latter as the disconnection between these incompatible spheres endures. Ofelia’s apotheosis in the world of Princess Moanna has echoes of The Wizard of Oz (the camera dwells on Ofelia’s shoes which echo Dorothy’s silver ones that have given her magical power only here the shoes have become blood-red, stained perhaps by realities of war and death) and Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Little Match Girl’, with its sentimental vision of the poor and neglected finding their due place in heaven. The reassuring closure that is offered by these classics of children’s literature is denied here – the cathedral-like scene of Ofelia’s rebirth is saturated the gold and crimson of Catholic iconography, with her father (addressed as padre and featuring a vignette by Federico Luppi, latterly the ghostly Dr Casares of The Devil’s Backbone) and mother ensconced on hugely elevated throne-like pinnacles. The effect is to widen the void that separates reality and imagination, rendering the final blooming of the fragile white flower of peace watched by the perennial del Toro insect all the more uncertain, dependent as it is on the human willingness to look beyond. The film’s alchemic melding of modes is a direct invitation for the viewer to look beyond the aesthetic conventions and assumptions that underlie film genre as well as, crucially, to resist and challenge blind allegiance to repressive ideologies.