Thursday, October 15, 2015

GDT week: history is alive... and dangerous



Until I see Crimson Peak and can make an accurate judgement, I'm going to say that Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece is Pan's Labyrinth (2006). It's not much of a stretch and there will be some who argue for The Devil's Backbone and I will listen to those people because they aren't entirely wrong. The Devil's Backbone is an amazing film and helped del Toro get over his first foray into Hollywood (Mimic) and do what he does best: tell dark stories laden with historical context.

That is the main thrust of why Pan's Labyrinth is such a success. The film has two stories: the magical journey of young Ofelia and the battle for Spain as a nation in 1944. Del Toro takes the fantastic and the realistic and makes them the same. Ofelia escapes one horror only to find another. Which is worse or which world we should choose is never clearly stated. Just as in Hellboy two years prior, del Toro allows his viewers to decide what to believe in. By making reality seem like a (dark) fantasy and the fairy tale world of Pan -- equally dark -- seem real, we are left in a paradox that doesn't allow for black and white choices.

History is alive in del Toro films. Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth use Spanish history to contextualize the supernatural plots. Hellboy begins  during World War II and Pacific Rim includes a future history for its action, but one that is rooted in the results of known history.

Even given these historical contexts, ones that allow us to look back and determine who was right and who was wrong, winners and loser, good versus evil, del Toro doesn't play it back and white. In Pan's Labyrinth, Ofelia is trying to escape the tyranny of her stepfather Capt. Vidal (who eventually commits suicide). As we have seen throughout history, defeating one set of dictatorial leaders can often open the door to a new set of equally tyrannical rule. Maybe it takes a few years for the new folks in charge to reveal themselves to be just as bad as the previous regime but there is plenty of historical precedence for it. Here, Ofelia finds herself under the rule of the Faun and must abide by a new set of restrictive rules. The threat of death imbues both worlds Ofelia must find her way through.

And that is how history always turns out. Winners and losers eventually die. Some names are remembered and most are forgotten. Del Toro uses his films to remind us that just because a name has been lost to time doesn't mean the actions of that being no longer affect us. It's how history operates.

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