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.
The 1960s and 1970s were frustrating times for many Spanish filmmakers. Although there had been the possibilities of a ‘New Wave’ in Spanish Cinema, the censorship of the Franco regime made it impossible to make any kind of direct comment on Spanish society and especially any critical comments about the state or the church. What this situation produced was a number of oblique commentaries employing metaphor and allegory to represent the disastrous consequences of the Fascist control of Spain after 1939. Some of these films turned out to be masterpieces of cinematic art as well as fascinating commentaries. But of course many of them did fall foul of the Spanish censor and were not seen in Spain until after Franco’s death.
Perhaps the best known film of this kind (barring Luis Buñuel‘s return to Spain with Viridiana in 1961) was The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Around the same time, right at the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, Carlos Saura made Cria Cuervos (Raise Ravens), one of my favourite films. I’d read about Saura’s earlier film La caza but I hadn’t realised that a UK film print still existed. So kudos again to !Viva¡ for finding – and screening – the print in this year’s festival. The screening took place in the cinema’s weekly ‘classics matinee’ slot so we were also promised the chance to discuss the film afterwards. Watching a film print was a rare pleasure. This vintage print dated from the 1970s (with an ‘X’ Certificate). It did break at one point but overall it looked fine. One advantage of the black and white prints of the 1960s is that they haven’t suffered like the cheap colour processes of the period.
La caza has a simple narrative. A group of four men drive into a valley in Central Spain where one of them has hunting rights. A gamekeeper and his aged mother and young teenage daughter are the only other characters. They live in a shack locally and eke out an existence in the unforgiving terrain. For the shoot they are expected to cook the food and find the prey – in this case rabbits. The four hunters comprise three older men who know each other through work and what we assume were prior relationships in wartime. The younger man, Enrique, is the brother-in-law of one of the older men. The day is very hot, some of the rabbits have myxomatosis, there are tensions between the men and drink is taken – we know that violence will break out.
In the discussion that followed we were lucky to have Núria Triana-Toribio as our leader. Dr Triana-Toribio is the author of Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) and she teaches La caza regularly on her Spanish Screen Studies course at the University of Manchester. She’s also a regular contributor to the support programme for Spanish Cinema at Cornerhouse and the Cervantes Institute in Manchester. She listened patiently to what everyone in the small group (there were about 8 or 9 of us out of quite a good audience who transferred to the education room for the discussion) had to say and then provided us with information that we mostly didn’t know. I was surprised that some of the younger people in the group found the film very violent. Violent it is, but not gratuitously so as in many contemporary films. The violence has an impact because of the realist style, the taut direction and the excellent performances all round. I’d read beforehand that Sam Peckinpah had been very taken with the film and that it had influenced his preparation for The Wild Bunch (US 1968). I could certainly see what Peckinpah might have admired (and there is a scorpion sequence, which may have prompted the opening shot of The Wild Bunch). What was most evident in the discussion was that younger people for whom the Civil War is a dusty historical event were not particularly aware of the metaphors and allegorical force of the piece – but still found the narrative gripping. The mid 1960s was a period when gritty masculine action pictures, including war combat films, westerns and crime dramas, were still a staple of Hollywood and much of European Cinema. I was reminded not just of Peckinpah but also of Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Sam Fuller etc. A particular title that sprang to mind as I watched the film was Sidney Lumet’s British film The Hill (UK 1965), in which British Army prisoners are pushed to their physical limits by sadistic warders in a North African camp. The Hill was actually shot in Almería according to IMDB and like many of these mid 1960s dramas was shot in black and white – a straight commercial decision about the costs of filmstock I think, rather than an artistic decision. I’m tempted to take Saura’s black and white shoot as a similar decision based on economics – even though as an artistic decision it would seem to be the right one.
The allegorical force of the film is evident at even a surface level. The actual shooting of the rabbits is brutal, violent and clumsy. Some are already diseased and can barely run away. A ferret is used to drive them out of their warrens. At another point in the narrative, the camera enters a cave in the hillside in which the remains of a soldier are still visible – killed presumably in his hiding place. Two of the older men are portrayed like ageing bulls in a herd of cows – displaying their prowess, asserting their masculinity. José owns the land but Paco has become the successful businessman. I was most interested in the third character, Luis. He has turned to drink and he reveals himself as (almost literally) a ‘loose cannon’ – dangerous because he has ‘lost control’. Yet in some ways he is the most ‘modern’. He is shown reading a science fiction novel and discussing SF authors with Enrique. He mentions Ray Bradbury, whose 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 would presumably be a controversial narrative in Fascist Spain? (Its story about book-burning in a future fascist society was being adapted for a film by Francois Truffaut in London at more or less the same time that La caza was being made.) Enrique clearly represents the ‘new Spain’. He seems eager and inquisitive and he doesn’t know about all the dark deeds of the 1930s and 1940s. The film ends with a freeze frame which Rob Stone in his Spanish Cinema book (Longman 2002) equates to both the famous still photograph of a Spanish Civil War soldier by Robert Capa and the final image of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups. Allegories like this don’t work by direct correspondence but I take from the film ideas about violent macho men out of control and uncaring, who treat the gamekeeper and his family with disdain. They are turning in on themselves and eventually their society will collapse.
Núria told us that the film’s location was in reality a famous Civil War battleground that the Spanish audience would have recognised. She also explained that the actors were very well-known figures in Spain at the time. She explained that Saura was relatively well off himself and that with Buñuel as a supporter he found it possible to get his films accepted for major film festivals – and subsequently foreign distribution deals. However, the film was banned in Spain and the audience who might have read the references didn’t see it until after 1975. She suggested that the Spanish authorities were pleased with this situation. Saura’s enhanced status at festivals reflected well on Spain (La caza won the Silver Bear at Berlin) but they were able to ‘protect’ Spanish audiences from critical comments. Saura’s producer Elías Querejeta carried on making similar films with Saura and others like Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive).
This is exactly the kind of film that it would probably be impossible to see outside of !Viva¡ or another major festival in the UK (I think it played at Edinburgh last Summer). And yet this is not a film by an unknown director. Álex de la Iglesia is a prominent Spanish filmmaker who first appeared with Acción mutante in 1992 but most of his titles that have been released in the UK in the past ten years have made little impact, except for the English language literary adaptation, The Oxford Murders (2008). Perhaps it is not surprising. Núria Triana-Toribio opens her book Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) with a comment on de la Iglesia to the effect that he is “the present, and possibly the future of Spanish Cinema. At the same time, his films may also be the death-knell of the very idea of a Spanish national cinema”. She goes on to explain that with all their references to authentic Spanish culture, no films could be more ‘castizo‘ – ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’. Yet this is all in spirit of parodying that national culture. And, of course, the full range of the references is only accessible by a local audience.
Balada triste de trompeta is a Spanish-French co-production, so presumably the French production partners thought that they were funding something that would work in the French market. I make no claims to a great knowledge of Spanish culture but I think I got enough of the references. The English title doesn’t help much as the narrative is essentially about two clowns and particularly about the ‘sad clown’ (the ‘sad trumpet ballad’ is sung on screen in a cinema at one point and the trumpet makes another crucial appearance in a different context). Where do they get these English titles from?
Initially it is 1937 and a circus troupe finds itself caught up in the Republican resistance against the Nationalist rebels in Spain. Forced to fight, the circus clown hacks down several of the enemy with his sword/machete but is then captured and eventually put to work with other prisoners after the war has ended, building the Fascist Monument to the Fallen in Valle de los Caidos. The clown’s son, Javier, now a young teenager, attempts to sabotage the building work but in the melée his father is killed and the boy wounds the Fascist colonel in charge. In 1973 the son has now fulfilled his father’s prophecy and become a ‘sad clown’ who is perpetually beaten up in the clown’s act. When he joins a new troupe he meets a particularly vicious clown who is the star attraction. This clown, Sergio, also beats up his girlfriend, the voluptuous Natalia. Javier feels compelled to intervene and is encouraged by Natalia – who nonetheless responds to Sergio’s violent sexual advances. (Natalia is played by Carolina Bang, who is married to the director.) The three-way battle eventually ends in a full-blown action sequence on top of the giant crucifix that stands above the Basilica of the Monument of the Fallen.
You certainly couldn’t accuse Álex de la Iglesia of holding back. This an extravaganza of comedy, horror, extreme violence and sexuality that is part Hitchcockian, part Todd Browning and part every schlocky horror film featuring clowns or children’s entertainers. All of this fits the extended allegory about the Civil War and its aftermath – with Natalia as Spain, Sergio as the brutal tyrannical Fascist and Javier as the anti-fascist. As one review that I read suggested, it’s almost as if de la Iglesia was trying to demonstrate to Guillermo del Toro exactly what a Spanish film about the war might look like. In one of the most bizarre scenes, Javier is reduced to acting as a gun-dog (don’t ask!) during a shoot organised by ageing Fascists and . . . no, I won’t spoil it.
Balada triste de trompeta won a Silver Lion at Venice in 2011 for Álex de la Iglesia as well as several other awards at different festivals. It is available as a Region 2 DVD/Blu-ray from Spain. Did I ‘enjoy’ it? I’m not sure, but I was never bored and I’m glad that I saw it. Thanks to Cornerhouse and !Viva¡ for the opportunity.