The Passion of "Pan's Labyrinth"

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[Jennifer Schuberth is a PhD candidate in Philosophy of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.]

"Pan's Labyrinth," Guillermo del Toro's fantastical allegorical film about fascists in 1944 Spain, has been hailed as one of the best movies of the year -- "movingly honest"; "a one-of-a-kind nightmare that has a soaring, spiritual center"; and a film in which "violence is used not for titillation but to create a world we can be fearful about."  It is also a film in which the logic of redemptive violence -- violence necessary for the creation and maintenance of an ethical order -- rules. And while mythical resonances give this movie a religious cast, it is the images of violence, and in particular torture, that call forth comparisons to Mel Gibson's magnum opus of carnage, "The Passion of the Christ."  While not gratuitous, these images nonetheless demonstrate how visual representations of intense violence can be harnessed to provide a form of ethical and even theological certainty that resists moral questioning -- even when such questioning issues from characters within the films themselves.

From the sounds of the American reviews, the art-house crowd has been given the gift of excessive violence that precludes merely passive titillation -- the kind of thing that certain viewers of "The Passion" might feel, but not these skeptical and more ethically astute liberals.   "We" understand the oft-repeated moral of the story: do not be passive, always question, never obey for the sake of obeying -- because following orders is what fascists do.  However, the film's violence, which is inflicted on and by people on both sides of the moral divide, seems set on disallowing precisely this kind of viewer disobedience.

A. O. Scott's review in the New York Times provokes the questions that need to be asked.  He writes: "A child could grasp [the movie's] moral insights ... while all but the most cynical of adults are likely to find themselves troubled to the point of heartbreak by its dark, rich and emphatic emotions."  So it would seem that the movie's moral is simple, but its emotions troubling.  Perhaps this is because these emotions are so emphatic that the moral imperative -- "don't obey" -- becomes almost impossible to follow, that is, to obey.  The politics of identification and the portrayal of redemptive violence in this filmic fairy tale are much more effective in directing its audience's moral compass than is a talking faun rewarding a little girl for questioning authority.

The scene that follows the revelation of this "moral insight" is just one example of what might trouble the less cynical viewers that Scott addresses.  (Spoiler alert: I'm about to discuss the movie's predictable ending.)  After murdering the young Ofelia, the evil Vidal emerges from a labyrinth holding his newborn son. His fascist army has been destroyed and the resistance fighters are waiting for him.  Upon handing over his child, Vidal is informed that his son will never know his name and is shot dead.

This scene is extremely satisfying; evil has been vanquished, and this new hope in the form of the infant will never know of the violence his father inflicted on others, nor the violence that ensured his own life.  This latter violence -- which included blowing up trains, slicing cheeks, and shooting an unarmed man -- was necessary and performed by good people, not evil fascists.

Of course, the movie would have lost some of its punch if, instead of shooting the torturer, they had taken him into custody and tried him over a period of months or even years.  His son would know his name, his country would know his crimes, and his violence would be met not with violence, but with questions that upend the logic of redemptive violence -- the logic with which this film, rather than challenging, only makes its audience more and more comfortable.

Perhaps fascists are evil enough so that scenes of torture provide no more or less certainty of their moral character.  Yet what this film so elegantly demonstrates is how violent images work to disengage the critical faculties that wrestle with uncertainty.  More broadly speaking, we can see how scenes of torture in "The Passion of the Christ" provide not only moral or epistemological, but also theological certainty.  Those who torture are monsters; therefore those who are tortured are good -- and if the good perpetrate violence or it is committed in their name, it stems not from evil, but from the need to restore moral or theological order. Watching torturers at work makes this economy of violence unquestionable; good and evil people exist, and these images let us know for sure who's who.

In watching "Pan's Labyrinth" I could not help but hear Marshall McLuhan whispering, "the medium is the message" -- no matter what "moral insight " is being repeated over and over again in words.  It is hard to hear characters saying "question!" when the images are screaming "obey!"


The following reviews were cited in this article:

Joe Utichi, FilmFocus (November 24, 2006): http://www.filmfocus.

Glenn Whipp, (January 11, 2007):

Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times (December 29, 2006):

A. O. Scott, the New York Times (December 29, 2006):

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