Doug Jones and Ivana Baquero in PAN'S LABYRINTH. Photo by TERESA ISASI.
Doug Jones and Ivana Baquero in PAN’S LABYRINTH. Photo by TERESA ISASI.

Guillermo del Toro's anti-fascist fairytale Pan's Labyrinth is Mexico's submission to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language category this year, though the picture’s set in Spain during the oppressive Franco regime.  Pan’s has already gathered Critic Circle awards and numerous nominations and accolades while on the festival circuit, and it is bound to draw new converts now that it has opened nationally.

Del Tormo is one of those rare filmmakers who, like Paul Verhoeven or Alfonso Cuarón, possesses such a profoundly inimitable vision that he can effortlessly jump from large studio pictures to his own smaller fare with ease.  His previous films prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt: the likes of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone were certainly smaller, almost art films in comparison to Mimic, Hellboy, or Blade II.

I had an opportunity to sit down with the director recently in which we discussed Pan’s Labyrinth, Franco’s Spain, and the existence of evil in the world today.

Michael Guillén:  Pan's Labyrinth is textured with redemptive transgression.  Can you speak to why doing the wrong thing ends up being so right?

Guillermo del Toro, director of PAN'S LABYRINTH. Photo by TERESA ISASI
Guillermo del Toro, director of PAN’S LABYRINTH. Photo by TERESA ISASI

Guillermo del Toro: Disobedience is one of the strongest signals of your conscience of what is right and what is wrong.  When you disobey in an intelligent way, you disobey in a natural way, it turns out to be more beneficial than blind obedience.  Blind obedience castrates, negates, hides, and destroys what makes us human.  On the other hand, instinct and disobedience will always point you in a direction that should be natural, should be organic to the world.  So I think that disobedience is a virtue and blind obedience is a sin.

MG:  Why do you tend to eroticize cruelty?  Your villains are thrillingly virile.  First, Eduardo Noriega in The Devil's Backbone and now Sergi López in Pan's Labyrinth.

GDT:  Well, it's the revenge of the guy who grew up being a chubby, not-very-attractive guy.  That's the revenge of the nerd.  One of the dangers of fascism and one of the dangers of true evil in our world—which I believe exists—is that…it is incredibly attractive in a way that most people negate.  Most people make their villains ugly and nasty, and I think, No: fascism has a whole concept of design, and a whole concept of uniforms and set design that made it attractive to the weak-willed.  I tried to make Sergi López like all politicians that are truly evil: well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken, gets up from his chair when a lady enters [and leaves] the room.  [W]hen somebody is that worried about the outward appearance, there's something truly wrong within.  The opposite is often true. 

MG:  All of your previous films have a fairly prevalent and overt use of Catholic imagery, but Pan's Labyrinth almost completely avoids it, and yet your friend Iñarrítu said that this is probably your most Catholic film.

GDT:  When I was researching the movie The Devil's Backbone, I found the absolutely horrifying—not only complicity—but participation of the Church in the entire fascist movement in Spain.  The words that the priest speaks at the table in Pan's Labyrinth are taken verbatim from a speech a priest used to give to the Republican prisoners in a fascist concentration camp.  He would come to give them communion and he would say before he left, "Remember, my sons, you should confess what you know because God doesn't care what happens to your bodies; he already saved your souls."  This is taken verbatim from that speech.  The Pale Man represents the Church for me.  [He] represents fascism and the Church eating the children when they have a perversely abundant banquet in front of them.  There is almost a hunger to eat innocence.  A hunger to eat purity.  I didn't want to avoid it, but I did not seek Catholic imagery.  Nevertheless, I understand that redemption by blood and the rebirth by sacrifice is a Catholic conceit.  So I accept it without any problems because I think that sexuality and religion come from your imprint in an early age.  Whatever arouses your spirit or arouses your body at an early age, that's what is going to arouse it the rest of your life.  Everything will be subordinate to that.  It's a personal choice and it's a personal experience.  I don't shame myself about being a lapsed Catholic, and so if that cosmology appears in my movies, I'm fine with it.

MG:  Another thematic image that I kept picking up from Pan's Labyrinth involves the relationship between Ofelia and the character of Mercedes. 

GDT: The idea for me is that you're born with a mother and then you find another on the way.  You are born with a brother and you find another one on your way.  You fabricate your family as you grow up.  Mercedes is the future of Ofelia if Ofelia chose to stop believing.  Ofelia asks Mercedes, "Do you believe in fairies?,"  and Mercedes says, "I used to when I was a child.  I used to believe many things that I don't believe in any more."  That's why the attraction is so strong.  They see each other in each other.  They see their strength.  Mercedes loves the purity of this girl and Ofelia instinctively knows the nature of this woman.  They form a mother and daughter bond.

MG:  Not to give too much away, but there is a dispute going on among people who have seen your film:  Was Ofelia in her fantasy world?  Was it a real world?

Maribel Verdú and Ivana Baquero in PAN'S LABYRINTH. Photo by TERESA ISASI
Maribel Verdú and Ivana Baquero in PAN’S LABYRINTH. Photo by TERESA ISASI

GDT: If the movie works as a piece of storytelling, as a piece of artistic creation, it should tell something different to everyone.  It should be a matter of personal discussion.  Now, objectively, the way I structured it, there are three clues in the movie that tell you where I stand.  I stand in that it's real.  The most important clues are the flower at the end, and the fact that there's no way other than the chalk door to get from the attic to the Captain's office.

MG:  Yes, and again referring back to the dynamic of their dyad, Mercedes notices the chalk door; they aren't just in Ofelia's imagination.

GDT:  Objectively, those two clues tell you it's real.  The third clue is she's running away from her stepfather, she reaches a dead end, by the time he shows up she's not there.  Because the walls open for her.  So, sorry: there are clues that tell you where I stand and I stand by the fantasy.  Those are objective things if you want.  The film is a Rorschach test of where people stand.