14 July 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Having read a great deal about Pan's Labyrinth on other blogs several months ago (for example Theofantastique), I had to wait impatiently for it to be released in South Africa, and wondered if it ever would be.

I finally got to see it last night, and it lived up to expectations. Even my wife enjoyed it, and she is not normally a fan of horror films, and this one, as those who have seen it will know, is a blend of fantasy, horror, and stark brutal realism.

It probably had a greater impact on me because I'm in the middle of reading George Bizos's Odyssey to freedom, a memoir of his time as a human rights lawyer in the apartheid era. Pan's Labyrinth is set in Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, where Franco's fascist forces are mopping up the remaining groups of Republican insurgents hiding out in the woods.

The villain of the film, Captain Vidal, could stand in for just about any of the police witnesses that George Bizos had crossexamined in court, when any evidence of torture of political detainees was denounced by prosecutors, and sometimes by the flagrantly biased judges, as attempts to besmirch the good name of the South African Police.

I wonder if the release of the film in South Africa wasn't timed to coincide with the release of Bizos's book. In the torture scenes in the film I kept thinking of the lonely death of Steve Biko, or the defenestration of Phakamile Mabija, a church youth minister who was being interrogated by the Security Police in Kimberley. The day we heard the news of his death, I was with a group of people who were saying Anglican Evening Prayer, and the Psalm set for the day was Psalm 94, which seemed most appropriate, especially verses 20-21:

You never consent to that corrupt tribunal
that imposes disorder as law
that takes the life of the virtuous
and condemns the innocent to death.

About 10 years ago I tried to write a children's fantasy novel set in the apartheid era, with a similar blend of fantasy and reality. It wasn't very good, and was probably too dark for a children's novel, so I abandoned it. But one thing different about Pan's Labyrinth was that the this worldly and other worldly realms appeared to have different agendas, which coincided quite coincidentally, as when the little girl's ailing mother gets better following the advice of the faun who sets her tasks for the other world. In this there are echoes of Narnia, where the young Digory Kirk is seeking an apple from Eden to heal his sick mother.

But there are also sharp contrasts with Narnia. In Narnia the faun, Tumnus, regrets and repents of his role as a Security Police informer, and ends up being detained himself, but in Pan's Labyrinth the faun turns out to be not much different from Captain Vidal, demanding unconditional obedience in the same terms and in the same tone of voice.

I go out to see films about once or twice a year, and Pan's Labyrinth was well worth seeing. Thanks to all my blogging friends who wrote reviews of it and made me want to see it. If it weren't for that I would probably have missed it.


Walton said...

I agree that this was a brilliant film, one of the best I've seen in ages. The best thing is that it's part of a trilogy, so there's more! (The Devil's Backbone is one of the others, I don't remember the name of the third).

I liked the end: "He won't even know your name".

Anonymous said...

Brilliant movie.
I've used that monster with the eyes in his hands in one of my D&D campaigns - scares the shit out of people!

Anonymous said...

coincidently i watched the movie last night as well. surprisingly i found it in the video store in killarney mall - which was really cool because i almost never go to the movies. its an intensely clever movie, littered with reference to philosophy and literature. the fascination with time, for instance, and the juxtaposition of clocked and calandric time of the fascists with the heterogeneous time of the labyrinth, is strongly evocative of walter benjamin's discussion on messianic time... as well as its deployment by magic realist writers like salman rushdie. I also loved the references to alice in wonderland (remember the scene where she goes to recover the key from the frog)and writers like borges. What i liked most about the movie is it critique of nationalist/fascist imaginary and its staging of the theme of disobedience...powerfully captured in the doctor's answer to vidal when he asks why the former disobeyed him; "only people like you obey without questioning". ja, that was cool. talking about obedience without questioning, i haven't read bizos' book yet. Instead i decided to buy suresh roberts' 'Fit to govern'. rubbish. after spending R150, i honestly feel cheated.

Elliot said...

I liked the twist at the end, when one realizes that the fairies do not want the girl to obey the faun unquestioningly. His demands for obedience are meant to be spurned, to teach her a lesson.

Steve Hayes said...

Dionysius & Elliot,

Yes, the theme of obedience is significant, and runs through both worlds. The doctor stands up to Captain Vidal, and Ofelia stands up to the faun. Love is more important than obedience.

Ofelia learns that lesson.

When she encounters the thing at the banqueting table, and wakes it up by eating the grapes -- shades, not of Narnia, but of Charn, and Eden -- the faun berates her for her disobedience, but is primarily concerned, like the Captain, with obedience in itself. The consequence of the disobedience - that two fairies have died as a result of it, is ignored. But the lesson is not lost on Ofelia. She does not need the faun to remind her of that.

And then, of course, there is the irony of the faun warning her that the thing at the table is not human, when, of course, the faun itself is not human. And if it is the inhumanity of the thing at the table that it is the reason to fear it, then it must euqlly be reason to fear the faun. And so Ofelia learns that it is not obedience, but ubuntu that is the virtue. Obedience in itself is not a virtue, it is only a virtue when it is coupled with love.

I think Pan's labyrinth is worth seeing twice or more, it would definitely be worth getting the DVD.

Oh, and thanks for the warning about Fit to govern. Odyssey to freedom sounds much better.


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