Sunday, February 17, 2008

Small traces

I have never been much of an afficionado of the genre that is sometimes called 'fantasy' (although a friend of mine argues persuasively that all fiction is 'fantasy'). But Pan's Labyrinth is set in a real place and a real time. I have always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War - a hopeful, if tragic, time of progressive internationalism and meaningful solidarity. The film is set in 1944: the Civil War has officially ended, Spain has officially been neutral through World War 2 although it has become something of a proxy battleground for the two sides in that conflict, but here in some forgotten corner of the country, guerrillas in the mountains continue to battle Franco's troops. Ofelia's mother has just married an impossibly brutish Captain in the army, the kind who shoots first and asks questions later, and in a particularly gruesome scene, stitches a gash in his cheek after it has been slit by a woman he is interrogating. Ofelia tries to escape the ugliness around her by entering into a fairytale world, but one that she finds to be equally full of trials and tribulations. I experienced a mounting sense of expectation that the two worlds would intersect at some point, but this is far too real a film to let that happen: Ofelia's private world of grasshoppers turned fairies, monstrous toads, trolls and cadavers is resolutely her own, no one else is aware of it. In the public world of Franco's Spain, one anarchist asks what if we can't win?; at least we'll make things harder for the bastards, his friend replies. The Captain's beautiful and brave housekeeper Mercedes, who has been surreptitiously carrying supplies to the guerrillas, says, when caught, that she has been able to get away with a great deal because being a woman made her invisible. And of Ofelia, whose blood sanctifies the altar which is the gateway to the underworld and establishes her once again as the Princess Moanna, of Ofelia... is said that the Princess returned to her father's kingdom,
That she reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many centuries,
That she was loved by her people,
And that she left behind small traces of her time on earth,
visible only to those who know where to look.

Pan's Labyrinth is an ode to the vanquished subaltern.

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