I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction:
Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.
In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.
Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.
Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.
The Spanish Civil War
The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.
Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.
Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:
Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)
Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again.
Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.
Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.
This was the third film in the festival to feature a father/grandfather and young son/grandson. In Formentera Lady the focus is on the grandfather and in La teta y la luna, it’s on the son with the father only appearing at crucial moments. In En las estrellas, however, the father and the son appear together for most of the time. ¡Viva! 25‘s theme is serious fun and this film fits the bill with its credentials emphasised by the producer’s credit for the cult hero of Spanish cinema, Álex de la Iglesia.
Victor (Luis Callejo) has been devastated by his wife’s death, especially because he thinks he didn’t do enough to save her. He was a filmmaker, a creator of special effects and sets for science fiction and ‘monster movies’ – so talented that he was asked to work with ‘the Americans’. But now he has lost himself and any chance of employment. He is drinking heavily and inveigling his son ‘Ingmar’ (named after the director not the boxer) played by Jorge Andreu to help him make no budget films using a cheap video camera.
The only recreation for father and son is an old cinema which still operates even though it has no customers. But down in the basement are hundreds of reels of classic SF and monster films. Back in their rundown apartment every square inch is taken up by books, videocassettes, robot toys etc. It’s an existence that cannot continue indefinitely and there is a social worker sniffing around. The other major feature of the plot is a series of fantasy sequences in which Victor tells his son the stories that he would like to film. Inevitably these involve memories of the missing wife/mother Ángela (Macarena Gomez) and they are illustrated by quite beautiful painted sets and fuelled by an inventive imagination.
I enjoyed this film very much. It follows a Spanish tradition of child-centric films, once revered by Franco’s censors as ‘innocent’ but since the 1970s used to critique fascism (e.g. in The Spirit of the Beehive and later in Pan’s Labyrinth. More recently the Spanish director J. A. Bayona made A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016) with some similar elements. As well as the role of children, Spanish cinema is also known for its interest in SF/fantasy/horror genres. Up Among the Stars is a title that also recognises cinema history and in particular the monsters and robots who are the stars of classic movies. The obvious references are to Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (France 1902) which is arguably the basis for the father’s fantasy, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the legacy of King Kong. I was also intrigued by a 1934 colour cartoon of Don Quixote from UB Iwerks shown on a TV set. I wonder also if writer-director Zoe Berriatúa was influenced in any way by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (US 2011) and its portrayal of the Méliès studio?
I realise that I’ve focused mainly on the cinematic references to the monster/robot films and also on the child in the film. I’ve underplayed the element of the father’s grief and guilt about his wife’s death and I guess that there are other cinematic references to horror films/ghost stories and romances that I haven’t really thought about. There is also a gentle critique of the film industry and the way it funds/doesn’t fund creativity. I doubt the film will appear in UK cinemas which is a shame. I think it may be available on Netflix or Amazon. I’d recommend it as a diverting 86 minutes but its ‘Scope presentation would work much better on a big screen.
Here’s a trailer. There are no English subs but it does give you an idea of the wonderful mise en scène and the music:
This year’s ¡Viva! included a retrospective tribute to the Catalan director Bigas Luna who died just six years ago. The festival screened his ‘Iberian trilogy’ and a documentary BigasXBigas (2016) was screened alongside a video art exhibition at the Instituto Cervantes in Deansgate. The exhibition runs until April 13. The whole tribute was curated by Prof. Santiago Fouz Hernández of the University of Durham and Betty Bigas, multi-disciplinary artist and daughter of Bigas Luna.
The screening of La teta y la luna was introduced by Dr Abigail Loxham, University of Liverpool and she and Prof. Hernández conducted a Q&A/discussion after the screening. Unfortunately I could only stay for the first half of this. The screening used an archive 35mm print from Metro Tartan and on the big screen in Cinema One at HOME we noted all the problems with an aged film print but also the real pleasure of watching a well-made ‘film’.
The two previous films in the trilogy Jamón, jamón (1992) and Huevos de oro (1993) were set in Aragon and Alicante respectively but in La teta y la luna the setting is the coast of Catalunya. Like the other two films, La teta y la luna is also concerned with ideas about masculinity and identity presented through comedy and a celebration of eroticism in cinema. The narrative is presented through the eyes and voiceover of Tete (Biel Durán), a nine-year old boy who feels threatened on two fronts – first by his father’s insistence in instilling him with the fearlessness of machismo and secondly with his possible displacement from his close relationship with his mother prompted by the imminent arrival of a younger brother. Tete’s ‘test’ set by his father is to be the boy (enxaneta) who has to climb to the top of the human tower (castell) formed by the local men in an annual local celebration. His fear of doing this becomes displaced into an obsession with his mother’s breasts. If he loses these to his baby brother, he feels he must find another pair of equally fine breasts to take their place.
Tete’s quest takes him to a local carnival show by the sea where he discovers Estrellita (Mathilda May) a beautiful Portuguese dancer who performs with her French husband Maurice (Gérard Darmon) in a variety act. She dances and he farts while astride his motorbike. His farts are very controlled and he uses them to perform stunts. (I’m reminded of that other French entertainer, Le Pétomane (1857-1945) whose family were actually from Catalunya.) Tete discovers where Estrellita and Maurice have their caravan and he spies on them. But he soon realises he has a rival, a young Andalusian flamenco singer named Miguel (Miguel Poveda). I won’t go into more detail on the plot but as we might expect, Tete is exposed to a number of breasts of different shapes and sizes and he will eventually conquer his fear of heights in climbing the human tower.
Before I engage with the introduction and Q&A, I’d like to just share a couple of my own thoughts. I remember watching Jamón, jamón, mostly for the early film appearances of Penélope Cruz (her first) and Javier Bardem. I don’t remember Huevos de oro but I may well have seen it and similarly I can’t be sure about an earlier watch for La teta y la luna. But I can be sure that I enjoyed both Jamón, jamón and La teta y la luna. All three films were photographed by José Luis Alcaine, the last two in ‘Scope. The cast members are all accomplished in these kinds of roles and freely enter the playfulness of Luna’s comic eroticism. Mathilda May trained as a ballerina – I’m not sure if Gérard Darmon ever trained as a flatulist. All the films received an 18 certificate in the UK and YouTube has attempted to certificate the clips that have been uploaded. It seems sad to me that a film with naked breasts could be seen as ‘offensive’ or harmful to younger viewers. Bigas Luna pokes fun at this I think with a surrealist sequence in which Estrellita spectacularly lactates into Tete’s mouth much as wine might be poured from on high from a large flask. There are many other similar visual jokes. Tete’s voyeurism also leads him to believe that women need to be ‘filled’ by their partners before they can produce more milk. Maurice is now impotent so Estrellita needs to be ‘filled’ by Miguel.
The great strength of the film is that everything happens at pace and the rudimentary plot is played out in 90 minutes or less. There is just about enough time to think about identity issues. The title refers to Tete’s appeal to the moon to help him find new breasts. He imagines a moon scene with the flags of Spain and the European Community as it was then. Estrellita’s Portuguese identity is not really highlighted but much is made of Miguel’s Andalusian background and Maurice’s ‘Frenchness’ and Catalunya is represented ahead of Spanish identity as such.
Listening back to the Intro, Abigail Loxham crammed a great deal into her short time allocation. She described the film as a ‘Freudian family melodrama’ and emphasised that Bigas Luna’s main point seemed to be to equate masculinity and nationalism and to see both as inflexible and needing to be treated in effect by feminisation and pluralism. She also noted that although he set this third film in Catalunya, it was not in the urban sophistication of Barcelona but in the pluralist and carnivalesque seaside camp site. She made the point that narrating the film through the child enable Luna to make his points about sexuality and inflexible masculinity without prejudicing the representation of the female characters. I’ve paraphrased what she said and I hope I’ve understood the points. She also commented on how the film, though nearly a quarter of a century old now seems timely as we consider where nationalism is taking the UK (England?) as well as other parts of Europe in respect of Brexit. I’m not sure about the feminine aspect though since we seem to be saddled with the most inflexible female leader (oddly also a ‘May’)!
In the Q&A there was a more detailed discussion of ideas about national identity and Prof. Hernández made several interesting comments about the trilogy of films which made me wish I’d been able to view the other two films this week. He discussed ‘passion’ in the film, relating it back to Loxham’s reference to a similar trilogy of plays by Lorca. It occurred to me then just how much red is used in the film (see the stills above). He also said that he was writing about Bigas Luna at the moment (and he praised Abigail Loxham’s work on Luna). After the screening I looked up the three Spanish film studies texts in my library and was surprised to find that Bigas Luna was completely ignored in one, briefly referenced in another and discussed mainly in respect to Javier Bardem’s involvement in the trilogy. I was surprised that Luna was not recognised in the way he (much like Almodóvar) took his early ideas from soft porn into mainstream films, developing the humour and making possible a deeper understanding of aspects of sexuality. I enjoyed the film and I’ll look out for opportunities to see the other parts of the trilogy.
This was a real treat with extra enjoyment from the Q&A with director Koldo Almandoz that followed the screening. Almandoz is a documentary filmmaker and someone who makes a living by working in different ways with local arts and social groups. He had a short film screened at Cannes in critics’ week as early as 2003. His first ‘long’ film merged documentary and fiction and this second film, though a fictional narrative, is deeply rooted in the landscape and small community on the outer fringes of his home town of San Sebastian. When he originally conceived the idea for the film it was about two brothers now retired who share a building by the river (the ‘Urumea’?) but who no longer speak to each other. Eventually, however, the writer-director became interested in a third character, a young man who came to Spain as a small child from Western Sahara when he was six years old. (The ex-colony of Spanish Morocco is now largely controlled by Morocco but the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic still claims sovereignty and is recognised by most African countries.)
Khalil (Laulad Ahmed Saleh) took over as the lead character in the final version of the script. He lives with his mother who makes sure he is well-fed and still attends a technical school (in the UK an FE college) where he is hoping to finally pass his exams. His father did work in a local factory but has now died. The area itself has seen industrial employment decline. Khalil gets by from a combination of small-scale drug dealing and the poaching forays of José Ramón (Patxi Bisquert). José is the one of the two brothers. He worked in a factory and now tends his garden and stuffs animals when he isn’t hunting, fishing and trapping illegally. The other brother is MartÍn (Ramón Agirre), who by contrast was a university lecturer in Paris but he has recently returned in somewhat mysterious circumstances. He keeps busy with more intellectual pursuits.The only other main characters are a young woman in the local petrol station, with whom Khalil has an off/on relationship, and a second young woman who is employed as a park ranger and tries to catch Ramon in flagrante with his traps.
This description of characters and locale perhaps suggests a conventional drama. To a certain extent this film does work out as a drama narrative but it is genuinely an art film interested in a central theme of people ‘moving’ and the changing context of migration. The Basque country has changed over the last 20 years or so and now there are people like Khalil who have been through the local school system and who represent part of the future of the region. The characters are all on the move, none more so than Khalil whose small motorbike takes him from school to the lorry park and petrol station, to José Ramon’s house and back home. On a couple of occasions he goes out in José Ramon’s boat down the river and once to the sea, illegally fishing for elvers. Khalil is embedded in the community but the girl at the petrol station wants to leave. To comment on Khalil’s position, Almandoz includes a scene where a man suddenly switches from speaking Euskara (Basque) to Spanish when he talks to Khalil. This could be interpreted either as emphasising that for him Khalil is “not one of us” or that the man simply assumes that Khalil must be a recent migrant.
Much of the time in the film the emphasis is on the landscapes rather than moving the narrative forwards. In the Q&A Almandoz repeated the neo-realist maxim that the story was made to fit the landscape and not the other way round. Cinematographer Javier Agirre captures changing light on the river and produces remarkable images of the local wildlife – a kingfisher, a heron, an owl, a wild pig and a hedgehog. There is a sense in which as the industry and the people leave the area, the fauna comes back. The film’s title is ‘the deer’. There is a deer in the film but Koldo Almandoz told us that he just wanted a title that didn’t explain the whole film.
Almandoz also told us that he wanted to make a film about his home town but he wanted to avoid what he called the typical Basque film that celebrated some aspect of the Basque country’s uniqueness and special achievements. He wanted his film just to show the people in this very specific location, not as heroes or villains, just people. I must add, however, that on two occasions MartÍn sings with a local choir. The choir produces an absolutely glorious sound. Almandoz told us that when he shot the film he thought he didn’t want any non-diegetic sound but later he accepted that the music produced by Ignacio Bilbao and Elena Setien worked well with the images. The festival brochure suggests that it was inspired by Jonny Greenwood and Sigur Rós. I enjoyed the non-diegetic score but the choir sound really got to me. I’ll remember this film and I’m certainly thinking about going to San Sebastian. The film has been released in Spain and France. It has been a critical success rather than a crowd-pleaser. Koldo Almandoz says that he grew up watching films from other language cinemas (he gave the films of Aki Kaurismäki and Abbas Kiarostami as examples) and implied that he was happy if his films were seen at festivals. He finished the Q&A by explaining that he has several future projects in mind but that he doesn’t only live in the world of cinema. Sometimes he works to feed his family and to pay the bills – but he didn’t say what kind of work that would be. He came across as a very interesting guy.I hope to get the chance to see his work in future.