The legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent fascist regime of Francisco Franco continues to haunt the Iberian country, a specter so ugly that its citizens intentionally cast their eyes downward in fear of meeting its ghostly gaze. Despite the dictatorship falling after the Caudillo’s death in 1975, both sides of the political divide in Spain immediately agreed on the “Pact of Forgetting,” a political decision to eschew grappling with the dictator’s 36-year reign in favor of quietly transitioning the country into democracy. Due to a heavily instilled fear of persecution and the promise of individual freedoms being quickly restored, much of the Spanish populace was more than eager to unceremoniously bury the traumas of war and subjugation—a voluntary act of cultural amnesia which also opted to keep some 114,000 civilian casualties in their unmarked mass graves as a result.
On the 15th anniversary of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, its setting in Francoist Spain continues to reflect the profound discomfort its citizens face when confronting the crimes committed during this nearly 40-year period of bloodshed and repression. For all of the film’s fantastical allure and captivating creatures, no element is more chilling and disconcerting than the presence of fascist doctrine, carried out to its most heinous ends by Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Set five years after the official end of the Civil War and Franco’s ascension to power, the film is steadfast in its assertion that a strong faction of Spanish citizenry bravely resisted the shift to totalitarianism well after Franco was declared divine leader. Caught in the crosshairs of the conflict is the adolescent Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who gradually retreats into a mythical (though often perilous) realm in order to escape the escalating violence of her surroundings. Dividing her time between the mill where her newfound Falangist stepfather has relocated her and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) and the ancient labyrinth housed on the property, Ofelia finds the dangerous tasks presented to her by a towering faun preferable to witnessing Captain Vidal carry out his attacks on the armed rebels who reside in the hilly countryside on the outskirts of their property. Nothing poses a bigger threat to Ofelia’s well-being than the mechanisms of authoritarianism—namely the expectation that she adheres to conservative norms, loyalist nationalism and believing in God’s will over fairy tales.
According to del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is in essence a spiritual successor to his 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone, which is similarly set during this fraught period of Spanish history. Though the latter film takes place during the final year of the Civil War as opposed to its direct aftermath, it is far less invested in lingering on specific acts of Nationalist violence than Pan’s Labyrinth. The looming anxiety of the disarmed bomb in the orphanage’s courtyard and the secrecy of the owners’ Republican sympathies drive the plot forward, yet the antagonist turns out to be a scorned former orphan whose own troubled upbringing causes him to lash out and stage an explosion in an attempt to ransack the safe for gold bars being held for the Reds—killing a slew of children and staff in the process. The film also features the ghost of a murdered child who haunts the grounds, eager to enact revenge on the same man who would cruelly sacrifice young lives in his quest for wealth. While the backdrop of the Civil War is certainly rife for political allegory (“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?”) and the benevolent owners of the orphanage clearly side with the anti-fascists, The Devil’s Backbone lacks the outright condemnation in which Pan’s Labyrinth revels. Independently produced by Augustin Almodóvar under his production company El Deseo (without the involvement of Pedro), The Devil’s Backbone was released on the heels of the foundation of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory just a year earlier—signaling the beginning of Spain’s sincere reflection on the terrors of its recent past.
Just five years later, Pan’s Labyrinth elegantly expands upon the themes presented in The Devil’s Backbone while also juggling greater technical aspirations for the film’s overtly magical backdrop. In exploring the early years of Franco’s rule, del Toro challenges the complacency of present-day Spain when it comes to standing up for truth and justice. If a concerted portion of Spaniards were continuing to fight against fascist rule for several years after the ostensible end of the war, what exactly was stopping citizens from denouncing this same regime 30 years after its fall? Though the film’s most captivating moments are certainly those which feature stunning make-up, prosthetics and computer effects (and the singular performance of frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones), these are never the most viscerally affecting. No inhuman entity in the film is more frightening than the uniquely human cruelty of Captain Vidal, the blank expression as he maims and slaughters those who stand in the way of a purified Spain more ghastly than a creature with sagging flesh and gaping eye sockets in its palms. His monstrosity is palpable in the force with which he bashes a young farmer’s face in with a blunt bottle; the tortured, mangled hand of a stuttering Maquis guerilla fighter; the sheer force with which he clutches Ofelia’s left hand, coldly reprimanding her for not having presented him with her right.
Yet the fear of authoritative figures is also one rooted in childhood, making del Toro’s adolescent protagonists perfect subjects for understanding the innate aptitude for rebellion that is often quashed before entering adulthood. Ofelia is the only character who openly expresses dissatisfaction with Captain Vidal’s actions, while others are forced to dissent in confidence. Domestic servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) acts as a spy for her rebel brother residing in the surrounding forest, while Doctor Ferreiro (Álex Angulo) aids injured guerillas in the dead of night. The shroud of secrecy ultimately dissolves, with each anti-fascist answering to Captain Vidal’s wrath in the end, each with varying outcomes of survival. Even Ofelia’s adolescent defiance results in her murder by her evil Falangist stepfather, proving that even the dissatisfaction of children in Francoist Spain could be construed as political opposition.
The human capacity for brutality appears much more insidious than any monster present in del Toro’s work. The overwhelming exception is the Pale Man (Jones), whose voracious appetite for children despite the grand feast that sits in front of him is itself an allegory for the sexually abusive cruelty of the Catholic Church (which itself supported the Nationalist cause and Franco’s coup). More often than not, these fantastical beings occupy a role of benevolence or are merely victims of mischaracterization—a parallel to the director’s own lifelong obsession with Frankenstein’s monster. Much has already been said about Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone and their striking similarities to Víctor Erice’s 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive, particularly when it comes to the focus on troubled children touched by mythical beings in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. Yet Erice weaves Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein into the foundation of his film’s plot, with a six-year-old girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) becoming enraptured by the existence of the creature after a dubbed reel of the film screens in her small village nestled in the Castilian plateau. When she stumbles upon an injured Republican soldier in the abandoned building which she believes houses Frankenstein’s spirit, she does not hesitate to approach him with kindness instead of fear. Unfortunately, she also unwittingly leads Francoist townspeople to the man, who is swiftly executed in a hail of gunfire.
This reflects Ofelia’s unintentional betrayal of Mercedes, who is caught attempting to smuggle the girl off of the property when she fears Captain Vidal has learned of her undercover status. While Mercedes manages to retreat to the protection of the Maquis guerillas, the tables are turned when Ofelia is ultimately sacrificed in the name of purifying Spain, though she is greeted with the prospect of underworldly royalty in her final hallucinatory moments. Neither martyr nor victim, Ofelia is a fierce protector, sacrificing her own life for that of her baby brother (and Captain Vidal’s heir) when the faun demands that innocent blood must be spilt in order for her to assume the throne as princess. Evidently, children are conscionable people living in a world where the parameters of right and wrong are measured and bound by the unconscionable actions of adults.
For a Mexican-born director, del Toro has undeniably crafted two of the most well-known films concerning the abominable reality of the Civil War and its early aftermath. However, his ability to conjure these stories with artful conviction is likely due to his own Spanish ancestry as well as his native country’s unlikely involvement in the conflict. Despite being born and raised in Guadalajara, his mother and father are both of Spanish heritage—hardly an anomaly when considering Mexico’s status as the oldest colonial stronghold of the former empire. In fact, Mexico’s enduring Catholic majority—as obvious a product of Spanish colonialism as the ubiquity of the Spanish language—rendered the country’s support of the Republicans during the Civil War as baffling to its own population, particularly due to the Nationalists’ devotion to upholding a wholly Catholic country. Nevertheless, Mexico showed its support to the Republicans with a hefty contribution of $2,000,000 in aid, which also included military assets and combat volunteers. These two realities—one of familial connection, one of historical curiosity—grant del Toro an adequate distance for examining the true atrocities of fascism, while never relegating him to the status of “outsider” due to his unflinching commitment to restoring public awareness of the horrors which lurk just under the surface of a society long committed to a forgetful fugue.
Though the national sentiment has slowly crawled back toward remembrance and accountability, the outright condemnation of these atrocities remains oddly controversial. Only with the recent 2019 exhumation of Franco’s body from the Valley of the Fallen, a far-right monument to the casualties produced by Spanish Nationalist and Falangist fronts in the name of purifying Spain of godless Marxists, has there been a semblance of justice. While the majority of the populace supported this action, a staggering 32.5% opposed the removal of Franco’s remains from the monument, effectively demonstrating just how deeply the loyalty to the general has remained entrenched in Spanish politics and culture. Nevertheless, broader artistic ventures are finally approaching the subject after decades of voluntary disregard—namely Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, the beloved Spanish filmmaker’s first film to explicitly address the traumatic wounds of the Civil War and Franco’s rule. There’s still a long road ahead of the country when it comes to reckoning with the complex reality of this painful era: Spain does not even have a museum dedicated to the history of the war and the violence of its fascist dictatorship. However, the less afraid artists are to take meaningful stabs at unraveling the thorny consequences of civilian complacency (or defiance in the face of it), the more that potential for discussion blooms—and with that, the seeds of healing are planted anew.
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan