Obedience School

Guillermo Del Toro seems to be on a crusade with his new movie, Pan's Labyrinth. And he wants to mess up anyone willing to go along with him.

There's a host of lessons on obeying instructions in this film, and none of them are simple and easily summed up. Del Toro has thankfully abandoned the scattershot comicbook approach he took in Hellboy and has put together a film that offers actual food for thought -- a rarity in the cinema world at the best of times. And the past year has not been the best of times for cinema.

Pan's Labyrinth is at its heart a story about the gaining of wisdom, and about both the joys and pains suffered by those who are willing to go as far as required in order to discover the truth. About themselves and others and the world.

Our heroine, Ofelia, finds herself in a fairy tale while around her society collapses into the blood and mayhem of the Spanish Civil War. And as in any good fairy tale, our heroine is issued with very specific instructions to follow. And of course, inevitably, she runs afoul of those instructions, and badness ensues. But never quite the badness one expects. And by the time it all falls apart, you are no longer so sure that obeying the instructions is such a good idea.

Del Toro accomplishes something very exciting here: while showing us a classic fairy tale, and setting up the inevitable failure of the heroine, he intercuts with the sordid and distasteful tale of a Facist captain trying to bring a group of rebels to heel. We see inside the face (quite literally) of the captain and come to understand that this horrible man, this monster, is driven by the desire, in fact by the unquestioning NEED to obey his orders, and the capacity to limit his own moral judgement to the question of how completely he has fulfilled his comission.

So that instead of rolling our eyes and going "Oh, please, all she had to do was follow the instructions, for gosh sakes," when Ofelia crosses the line, we are instead conflicted. The logic of fairy tales tells us that breaking the rules is absolutely not on, and yet we have already begun to suspect that in this world, having followed the rules is not sufficient excuse for moral crimes. And by the end of the film, we worry more that the survivors will fall prey to the same trap, and that this cycle of obedience leading to corruption will never come to an end, than we do about the eventual fate of the characters.

This is not to suggest that the fates of the characters does not register. The violent horrors that are perpetrated on characters throughout this film give us terrible suspicions about what's possible in this world, and our suspicions turn out to be well-founded. There's an interesting moment where Ofelia's mother tries to get her daughter to give up this fascination with fairy tales. She has (like everyone else in this pain-filled film) suffered greatly, and she says, "Real life doesn't always turn out nice and pleasant like your fairy tales." (I may have the exact wording wrong. Sue me.)

But by this time in the film, we know that fairy tales DON'T always turn out nice and pleasant. In fact, we have come to understand that fairy tales generally turn out horrible and painful for everyone involved. Ofelia's mother's inability to imagine possibilities other than what she already accepts dooms her to her fate, and the lesson is not lost on young Ofelia.

Unthinking obedience is a kind of death, a walking death, a death from which there is no escape other than shattering trauma and horror. To truly live, Del Toro's new film says, one must recognize the tendency to bound one's moral judgement within the limits of the orders and expectations placed upon one, and push beyond those self-imposed boundaries. We have to judge ourselves without excuses. It is that very act, that ability to look upon ourselves and direct our actions according to moral, not social, standards, that makes us human.

Yes, the film is beautiful in every regard. It is thrilling and surprising and three-quarters of the way through, you have NO IDEA how it will all turn out. And it fulfills its own point wonderfully -- not only are the characters forced to disobey their orders or fall into darkness, the film itself disobeys its own conventions and turns inside-out before it's all over. Nobody gets away unscathed in Del Toro's world. Not even the audience.