Fascist ideals of masculinity had no real use for women other than as the vessels through which passed the next generation of fascist males. Its aesthetic was built upon a world where women were the conduits for sexual release and the pride that came from having reproduced a junior version of yourself who would carry on the ideals with which you yourself had been inculcated. Women, when they were not serving their purpose as mothers, or as virgins—potential mothers—were garbage, part of the larger population of undesirables and vermin who needed to be brought to heel, to be destroyed.
In Fascist Spain, in 1944, Franco's forces had been triumphant, but there was still opposition in the countryside. It is against this background that the splendid movie, Pan's Labyrinth takes place. Billed as a "fairy tale for grownups" it is just that. An old-fashioned, pre-Victorian fairy tale. A myth. As such, it is full of disturbing nightmarescapes and brutality that will sicken you. It is also one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen.
I should say right now that I saw it with my 15-year old daughter, who also loved it. It would have terrified her 9-year old sister (who did not attend), and my recommendation to parents is that consider carefully the ability of their children to contextualize both the horror and the beauty that the movie presents.
Pan's Labyrinth combines many of the tropes from the ancient myths. The main character, Ofelia, is a 12-year old girl who travels with her pregnant mother to the country headquarters (the mill) of Ofelia's new step-father, a captain in Franco's army who commands a base of men who are seeking to root out and destroy the band of guerilla fighters who hide in the wooded hills that surround the headquarters.
Ofelia refuses to call the captain "father," a disobedience that annoys her mother, but that also contains within it a larger struggle: the refusal of the feminine to obey, be disciplined, by the masculine.
Almost as soon as she arrives, Ofelia is befriended by the magical creatures that have inhabited the woods for eons. A fairy leads her to a faun, and it is the faun who charges Ofelia with the completion of three tasks, before the waxing moon is full. The tasks are terrifying, and as is the case in all such myths, require great ingenuity and courage on the part of its heroine. And, of course, the food-rationed child is tempted, while in the underworld, by luscious food. There's a pomegranate, of course, but I won't spoil it by telling you whether she partakes of the food that did in Persephone.
Running alongside the mythical story is what is happening in the battle between the Fascists and the rebels. Mercedes is the captain's housekeeper, and she efficiently directs the day-to-day operations of running a large household full of important men, while leading a secret life that disrupts the Fascist work and aids those in the woods who seek to free Spain of the tyranny of Franco.
The third major female character is Carmen, Ofelia's mother, who has been made sick by the carrying of the Captain's child. The pregnancy is draining her of everything, and the metaphor of a Female Spain, having been penetrated and impregnated by Fascism and thus sickening and dying, is personified in Carmen, who is kept constantly drugged and bedridden in order to be able to give birth to a healthy son.
And yet, it is Carmen, in a moment of wellness made possible by her daughter's heroics, who says some of the film's most memorable and heart-breaking lines. She tells her daughter that adults cannot believe in magic, that Ofelia must give up her magical thinking, because everyone has to deal with reality, even if that reality is ugly. The message is clear: the Fascists are in power, and it is we who must accede to their demands. I was reminded of Thucydides' History of the Pelopponesian War when he wrote that "the powerful extract what they can, while the weak grant what they must."
But, in Pan's Labyrinth, the weak have another power at their disposal. It is the same power that the weak—and especially women—have been associated with in those cultures in which the state (whether as represented by a monocultural church, or, as in the case with Fascism, the ultra-rational state) has attempted to take all power from the people. Magic. The manipulation of a magical realm to attempt to effect change in the real world. And it is not accidental that the person who is invested with this power is a girl.
For me, Pan's Labyrinth was about watching the feminine archetype of nurturer, possessor of secret knowledge, and wise warrior goddess in battle with the rational, brutal, and psychically wounded masculine archetype.
The further you venture into the labyrinth, the less clear it becomes where evil ends and justice begins. And yet, the one true thing I held onto is that Ofelia, with all her flaws and fears, is the heroine that I would want to be.