A few days ago I went to see Pan's Labyrinth. It has garnered near universal praise, and even claims of permanence from critics not usually given to hyperbole. I saw it and could see the reasons for the praise while being unimpressed and largely unmoved. It is a beautifully executed film, clearly the work of a single creator with a very particular vision, but one without much moral seriousness.
It is the story of a young, imaginative girl named Ofelia, travelling with her mother to a military camp in the woods. This is towards the end of the Spanish civil war. Her father is dead, and her mother is remarrying one of Franco's officers, who is devoted to wiping out the last of the Communist resistance. It is also established early that he is a sadist, eager to inflict pain for its own sake. The movie alternates between Ofelia's elaborate fantasies and increasingly brutal scenes of violence and torture.
Pan's Labyrinth clearly wants to be a parable that explores the nature of evil: both where it might come from and how to prevent it from corrupting you. But it never attempts to grapple with either of these questions. Instead it presents, repeatedly and as if they were revelatory, two answers: Don't obey blindly and don't hurt innocent people. I wholeheartedly agree, but I think the 20th century has shown that it is both just this simple and much more complicated. A movie that presents only the simplicity is grappling with a straw man.
I've been reading Primo Levi's memoirs recently, and they are such honest attempts to understand the nature of evil (and occasionally, forthrightly declare incomprehension) that this movie seems a little cheap in comparison. One of the reasons that Levi's books give off such a feeling of radiant decency is that he refuses to turn any person into a symbol. No one is allowed to represent goodness or innocence or corruption; there are only Henri and Jean and Cesare. They may represent characteristics that are widespread, but he always insists on dealing with them as individuals. I quickly got the sense that Del Toro had no such feeling for Ofelia. Early in the movie, Ofelia's mother asks her to tell her brother (in utero) a story to calm him down, and she tells one about a flower that grows at the top of mountain of thorns and provides immortality.
Something was wrong with this story. I remember feeling a line grate - I think it was about how all men fear death. The language was false; it was not a story that a child would tell. It existed to reinforce Del Toro's ideas, but it also meant that Ofelia was no longer convincing as a human being - she was now a symbol instead of a real little girl. And she remains a symbol throughout the movie - of innocence, of humanity, of spirited and decent disobedience: but one can only feel so much concern for the fate of symbols, unless they are of unusually deep resonance.
And are they? The most striking parts of the movie are its scenes of fantasy. They involve a faun that Ofelia meets who tells that her that she is the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld, but that she must perform three tasks to prove that she has not been too long among the mortals and lost her original nature. These sequences are the main reason for the praise this movie has received. Each of them, upon closer reflection, connects back to the Franco narrative. The first parable involves a huge frog that lives inside a tree, eating its food and slowly sapping the tree of its strength. In much the same way, the Fascists are eating sumptuous feasts while handing out miniscule bread rations to the peasants.
The rapacity and blind brutality of the regime is represented in a later sequence by a monster with eyes on its grasping hands. There are diagrams of it eating children. It consists only of appetite. Once roused, it is intent on consuming anything it can grasp; it has no real drive beyond its hunger.
Both of these are striking and indelible sequences. But this does not necessarily indicate that they are, in a deeper sense, meaningful. I think in many movies of this fantastical variety indelibility is somehow seen as an end in itself, as a sign that the director's imagination has succeeded. But it is not particularly difficult, with the resources available to a modern filmmaker, to create an indelible image. Imagine a giraffe with three heads. A man whose hair consists of thousands of moving antennae, with eyes on the end, like snails. I would be initially impressed if I saw those creatures alive and on film and then, if they did not have a real connection to the rest of the story, bored - as I was in Big Fish, and plenty of other movies that people call magical and then never want to see again.
In Pan's Labyrinth, the connections do exist, but they quickly exhaust their implications because none of them actually help to elucidate the phenomenon that they refer to. The frog in the tree may be a striking image, but it does not tell me anything that was not already obvious about a bunch of people having a feast while handing out bread rations. I remember thinking, when teachers pointed out connection after connection in Mann or Joyce, that the fact that these connections exist is not necessarily evidence of depth. Such breadcrumbs are relatively easy to scatter. I never understood why I should be impressed solely because a man's name is an allusion to Dante, and the apple that he eats as a snack connects to two other apples placed strategically around the book, leading to obvious connections to the Fall, as well as the golden apples and the Garden of the Hesperides, and look, aren't those the letters E V E hidden right there in his name, etc. etc.
This method of artistic creation strikes me as something like building a cathedral out of wicker. There are no blocks any more, just tiny tendrils connecting everything to everything else. And this mesh is, perhaps, stable, but give it a little push - by pointing out, for example, that millions of thematic connections exist between these people but no human ones - and the wind will take it away.
Pan's Labyrinth is not this sort of film, but it shares this artistic philosophy and duplicates some of its flaws. I felt again the lack of humanity that comes from an excessive love of symbols and connections. There is no such thing as tragedy in a world like this. It is both indelible and completely impermanent.