Yesterday I saw Guillermo del Toro’s film PAN’S LABYRINTH. In front of me in the ticket buying line were a group of older women, one of whom began talking about beginning to read and then quitting HIS DARK MATERIALS in preparation for a religious lecture/discussion on the series versus Lewis’s. “It starts with a girl falling asleep in a wardrobe and she is still asleep in the third book.” she said with a little smile. Then she held forth on the religious themes of HDM, at least those she had heard of it — the fall, the daemons, angels — pretty much all completely wrong, but she had her companions totally interested.
As for PAN’S LABYRINTH, it is quite something. Young Ofelia travels to an isolated area with her pregnant mother to join her stepfather, a captain fighting the rebels in 1944 fascist Spain. Ofelia like Lyra is on the cusp of adolescence, a child who seems to try to lose herself in fairy tale books — at the very start her mother tells her she is getting too old for them, that they are not real life.
Her mother is right; they aren’t real life. But they might be something else. Right away Ofelia encounters a fairy and soon is deeply involved in a fairy realm where she is evidently a lost princess. At one point a housekeeper in the real world of her stepfather’s military outpost gives her a dress and pinafore for a special party. When Ofelia heads off to the fairy realm, down, down, down — she looks exactly (consciously I’m guessing) like Alice.
As scary as that fairy realm is, the real world of fascist Spain is much, much worse. The film’s most graphic scenes of violence are of torture, maiming, killing and more in that real world. The stepfather is a complete sadist, the mother dies (of course), there is a baby brother for Ofelia to save (she does at great expense), a helper in the guise of a housekeeper who is there as a spy for the partisans, and so on. Ofelia goes off on a classic fairy tale quest — first to save her mother and then her brother.
I left the theater thinking it was too hard a film for me to watch — too violent. However, the more I think about it the more I’m glad I saw it. This is not really a Bettelheim view of fairy tales, but something more complex and original. And so I do recommend it with a warning that if you are not good with graphic violence prepare yourself — it is telegraphed ahead of time so you can turn your head away (or, as I did, cover your eyes so you can just read the subtitles without seeing what is happening above them).