You’d have to be pretty thick not to realize that del Toro intends the fairyland narrative — heavy with arbitrary commands, underground abattoirs, and intimations of blood sacrifice — as a commentary on the politics at work in the real-world storyline, and this realization has sent many critics into raptures over the film’s supposed political sophistication. Hence, for instance, Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern’s announcement that Pan’s Labyrinth “deepens our emotional understanding of fascism, and of rigid ideology’s dire consequences.”

This is, of course, precisely what the movie doesn’t do. López makes what he can of the character of Vidal, turning a cardboard villain into a memorable monster, but the film’s politics are about as deep as a puddle of blood. The fascists are beasts who torture, maim, and kill without compunction, before sitting down to fine dinners with local grandees and corrupt clerics; the Communists in the woods, on the other hand, are a heroic lot, sturdy and kindhearted and ethically pure, like figures out of, well, Communist propaganda. The only thing such caricatures deepen is our understanding of predictable left-wing bias in Western cinema. ~Ross Douthat (via Peter Suderman)

I haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth, so I reserve judgement on the quality of this film.  It almost could not be as good as everyone claims it is, because that would mean that it is as memorable and well-done as Casablanca but not nearly so clumsy with its blatant political moralising.  Obviously, if Ross’ review is right (and for the content of his review I am only working from the two paragraphs Peter cited), it is even clumsier and therefore probably much, much worse.  

Casablanca is a great classic in its way, but it is also one of the pioneers in heavy-handed, clumsy anti-fascist propaganda (this undoubtedly improves its reputation for most people, but it is a serious flaw in the film).  Victor Laszlo was also sturdy, kindhearted and ethically pure (and he gets the girl!), the Germans were also obviously cruel and malevolent, and Rick was that classic type of the embittered American idealist (whose motto apparently is, “I will never learn from experience”).  The inevitable conclusion is more predictable than the final shaadi scene in a Bollywood romance.   The shallowness of Casablanca’s politics has never stopped people from considering it one of the greatest movies ever made, though it almost certainly should have.         

Speaking of the merry communist bands in the forest and the noble Laszlo, I much prefer my commie movie heroes to actually be decent patriotic Russians who are only later cynically transformed into Party symbols by the conniving little commissars who secretly hate the heroes (the portrayal of Zaitsev in Enemy at the Gates is a lot more believable and sympathetic than Laszlo’s cookie-cutter “freedom”-fighting commie).  Therefore, when I heard that Pan’s Labyrinth was something like a mythical allegory on the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, my heart sank.  I had initially been intrigued by what I had heard of the story, and immediately after learning about the political angle I was sure I already knew the script.  Ross’ description confirmed my suspicions: noble Republican heroes confront over-the-top bad guy fascists.  How they do so and what we see along the way become almost secondary to this tiresome moral lesson.  Maybe Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t hector us as much as it sounds like it does, but it would be a unique anti-fascist movie if it didn’t.  When I first heard of the movie, I thought, “That might be very interesting.”  Then I heard the bit about the Spanish Civil War and I thought, “How dreary.”

This is not because I am uninterested in the Spanish Civil War (quite the opposite, in fact), but because I am entirely uninterested in morality plays in which it is taken as a given that the “fascists”–that is, the Nationalists–represent the embodiment of corruption and darkness, while the Republicans represent everything good and humane.  (When, I ask you, will someone make an updated version of the story of El Cid featuring the character of a dashing Carlist general?  When hell freezes over, comes the answer.)  It’s one of the reasons I always have such a hard time taking Hemingway seriously, because writers are supposed to be great observers of the world around them and writers who side with what I consider clearly atrocious causes have forfeited some of their authority as witnesses about the world.  That’s also one of the reasons I implicitly trust Roy Campbell’s aesthetic judgement.  I suppose I am in a distinct minority here. 

However, while I’m sure Ross is entirely right in his assessment of the depth of the movie’s politics and its lack of political sophistication, I submit that this is exactly the kind of “emotional understanding of fascism” that everyone wants and it is the sort of understanding that everyone will declare brilliant and insightful because it achieves something so much more important to a modern audience (especially a modern American audience) than real understanding of a phenomenon: it reenacts and condemns the audience’s foremost, universally-hated ideology in a sort of spectacle of moral judgement.  The only “emotional understanding of fascism” most of these people want is a very simple one that involves learning how to hate fascists.  In fact, there has never been any other kind of understanding in any form of Western art since 1945 for obvious reasons.  If that involves reimagining the Nationalists of Spain as stereotypical fascists, so be it. 

Everyone can unreservedly despise the “fascists” portrayed in the spectacle, while patting themselves on the back for being free of the bonds of such a ”rigid ideology.”  There is no need to delve any deeper than puddle-level into the politics of the subject.  We know from the beginning how we will react to the fascists; our conditioning has done half the director’s work for him.  All he needs do is give us a little push and we are happily sprinting towards whatever he wishes us to see, as if we were in a race with our fellow viewers to see who will reach the expected feeling of revulsion and contempt first.  “Oh, look at me, I hate fascism the most–do I get a cookie?” the winner will cry.  “Simplistic narratives and characters,” as Peter describes them, are the only kind that can exist in a movie about fascism or any regime deemed fascist by the cognoscenti.  The closest anyone has ever come to making a more complicated movie about a famous fascist person, to my knowledge, was Max (Tea with Mussolini definitely does not count), but that was set in Hitler’s youth and even that, in the end, had to succumb to a caricature every bit as cartoonish as any you will likely see.  The ending of Max is the payoff to the audience that has endured treating Hitler like a real human being for well over an hour–they want to see him reduced to a gibbering madman, no more, no less, and the director obliges.   There may come a time when this is not the case, but until someone produces, say, a complex and intelligent bio-pic about Marshal Petain or some Clint Eastwood of the next generation directs Letters from Salo we will continue to be treated to the thin, predictable treatment that assumes everything and asks nothing.  That is the treatment everyone wants, because anti-fascism is essentially the last universally-accepted consensus view. 

If you took away the audience’s mindless anti-fascism, they would become very agitated and unhappy, because it would be to take away the one thing about which virtually everyone can agree.  It is to some degree one of the few truly universal bonds uniting people from all over the world, and it provides a handy moral and political compass for most of the world.  To challenge that consensus would be to invite doom on yourself.  To start introducing anything other than simplistic narratives and characters into storytelling about anything related to fascism or those regimes conventionally and often ignorantly deemed fascist would be to risk the classical charge of trying to reject the gods of the city.  Not only would the director who dared to try be crushed by negative press and his motives impugned, but very few people would go to see it.  It would be considered part of the decadent avant-garde and relegated to the realm of strange experimental films.  It is much easier, then, to take the normal route, paint in bright primary colours with no subtlety whatever and receive the accolades of a grateful public, whose comforting crutch of reconfirmed ideological superiority continues to support them and keep them from having to think about the rigidities of their own ideological commitments and the crimes of their own regimes.