Queerness and laughter and things that are pretty. That's what I'm all about.
Where to start? The imagination behind it is extraordinary. It’s an original fairytale—if there’s ever such a thing—built out of Greek mythology (Daedalus’ labyrinth, Persephone, Kronos), the figure of the faun, as well as the work of Goya, films by Bunuel & Argento, Symbolism, Borges, Rulfo, Wilde, Carroll’s Alice, biblical archetypes, folklore, children’s literature (particularly Narnia), and Latin American magical realism. It’s beautiful: dark and lush, menacing and enchanting, gothic and pastoral, bloody and tender, perverse and profound, tragic and hopeful, full of rich poetic detail and the most extraordinary imagery. Every shot looks like a painting.
And I think it’s important. We need fantasy most when the real world is unbearable; and this is a fantasy about escaping into fantasy. But Pan intensely, intricately parallels its real and fantasy worlds, using the fairytale to speak about a real evil in human history. Folk fairytales are not benign; they’re dark and cruel and perverse. And the film shows that our ability to imagine horror gives rise to our capacity to inflict it. Evil is very, very old, and yet always new.
So Del Toro’s fantastical monsters are truly alien and frightening—but symbolically connected to a wicked man and his fanatical, brutal will to power, demonstrated through acts of horrific violence from which Pan does not flinch. The film’s focus is Franco’s fascist regime and the Spanish Civil War, a historical moment full of atrocities (e.g. Guernica). But other little touches—like the heaps of children’s shoes in the Pale Man’s lair, invoking the Holocaust—gesture toward other human-wrought horrors. Perhaps the good-evil dichotomy is a little heavy-handed—but for me Pan doesn’t trivialise its history or overly politicise its fantasy; they illuminate one another.
It’s also a brave film, because it chooses to inhabit the mind of a lonely, vulnerable, naive young girl, and gives her absolute narrative authority. What she sees, we see; and the film’s vividly realised fantasy world—or rather, underworld—is dark and strange and full of threat. But it also gives her political power: in order to resist the regime Ofelia must first imagine an alternative to it; and that is the catalyst for small but significant acts of rebellion. Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s a rewriting of the Fall in which a girl’s disobedience against authority is both moral and necessary to defeat evil and gain wisdom. (It’s also a critique of the Catholic Church, which benefited greatly from the fascist regime.)
And the ambiguous ending is a sort of Rorschach inkblot. Some take the view expressed here: Ofelia’s fantasies are mad, desperate delusions in the face of abuse, terror, and death. For me there are plenty of clues that the fantasy world is real, and that Ofelia’s ‘death’ is not her destruction. I don’t think that’s a naive or easy ending: Ofelia still dies a death in the world above, and the world she enters is far from benign. But I think that ‘fantasy is only delusion’ makes for a somewhat sadistic, defeatist film—and while Pan is grim and horrifying, I don’t think it’s nihilistic. Del Toro isn’t a nihilistic director. (See also Pacific Rim's refusal of the kind of cynicism and wanton destruction so endemic in Hollywood action blockbusters.) There is plenty of human goodness and kindness, not to mention Ofelia’s fierce love, courage, independence, and resourcefulness. The failure of imagination belongs to fascism; and Pan argues that totalitarianism will never win, as long as humans are capable of fantasy.
The MacArthur Foundation awarded lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel one of its coveted Genius Grants. The only requirement of the $625,000 award is that Bechdel and the 20 other recipients continue doing the good work they were already doing.
So, hopefully this means Bechdel will continue doing revolutionary work related to film, family and culture. Her name was on everyone’s lips starting last…