Franco’s Monsters: Childhood, Fantasy and Monstrosity in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Last Circus
The Spanish historical film has received a great deal of critical attention within the past three decades, as scholars attempt to understand the relationship between cinema and politics in contemporary Spain. There are a number of works that are historically oriented, which attempt to trace the development of Spanish cinema since the death of the country’s dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. In Out of the Past: Spanish Cinema after Franco, John Hopewell focuses on the first ten years post-dictatorship, in which Spanish cinema was just beginning to develop as a national art. Barry Jordan and Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas continue this chronological overview in Contemporary Spanish Cinema, updating the status of Spanish cinema through the mid 1990s. Thomas Deveny works more specifically with the Spanish historical film in Cain on Screen: Contemporary Spanish Cinema. He attempts to define the genre of the Spanish Civil War film, identifying what he calls “cainismo, or a fraternal antagonism within Spanish society” (5) and going on to identify a series of films that engage this historical issue. While very useful in understanding the development of cinematic genres and the advancement of themes in the post-Franco period, these books are mainly descriptive in nature and include very little analysis of the relationship between film and national politics.
Since the release of the critically acclaimed film Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) in 2006, critics have begun to focus their critical analysis on the Spanish historical film as a catalyst for social change in the country. Scholars have lauded the film for re-contextualizing the role of the Spanish Maquis, the small, rural guerrilla bands fighting against the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, the Maquis were vilified as lawless criminals intent on destabilizing the Spanish government; many Spanish films and novels of the post-1975 era have focused on restoring a more positive image of the Maquis by recognizing their loyalty and contributions to the Republican cause during the war. The way in which Pan’s Labyrinth works to recover the historical memory of the vanquished in the Spanish Civil War is one of the central points of most of the film’s critical scholarship. Mercedes Camino, in her article “Blood of an Innocent,” notes that Pan’s Labyrinth takes “a more nuanced approach towards the [Maquis]… while foregrounding the desertion of the fighters by international forces” (48) during the later stages of the Spanish Civil War. Camino goes on to argue that the film helps to accentuate the humanity of their fight against Nationalist forces by associating the Maquis with the film’s brave yet defenseless heroine, Ofelia.
Other scholars note the positive image of the Maquis as a counterpoint to the irredeemable evil of Captain Vidal, the representative of the Spanish Nationalist forces in Pan’s Labyrinth. After winning the war in 1939, the leaders of the Nationalist army were praised for their bravery in battle, and Franco’s government presented them as models of masculinity and courage for the Spanish people to emulate. Post-1975 Spanish film and literature worked to reverse this image of the Nationalist forces, casting them as cruel and unnecessarily violent. In his essay “Pan’s Labyrinth: A Subjective View on Childhood Fantasies and the Nature of Evil,” Timothy Segal describes Captain Vidal as “intrinsically evil and psychopathic,” and notes that the Nationalist soldiers that report to him “perform brutal acts on innocent farmers and rebels, exhibiting another facet of human behavior, the evil of obedience and inaction” (270). The portrayal of good and evil in Pan’s Labyrinth is overly simplistic, and little more than a reversal of the roles of the Maquis and the Nationalist forces as they were viewed under the Franco dictatorship.
Few scholars have been willing to look critically at the simplistic portrayal of good and evil in Pan’s Labyrinth, or to address fully the social and political issues that historical filmmaking can produce. At the end of her article “Blood of an innocent,” Camino briefly mentions “the Manichean presentation of good and evil… [that] avoids any suggestions of wrongdoing on the part of the guerilla” (59), but she subsequently excuses and even condones this issue by reminding readers that Pan’s Labyrinth is filmed from the perspective of a child. Not all scholars have avoided the issue of the vilification of Nationalist forces in films like Pan’s Labyrinth: José-Vidal Pelaz López and Matteo Tomasoni bring this issue to the forefront of their article “Cine y Guerra Civil: El conflicto que no termina” (“Cinema and Civil War: The never-ending conflict”). They note that “post-Franco cinema has worked to show images of the war almost exclusively from the perspective of the losing side, making the same mistakes that government-sponsored films made during the dictatorship: manipulating the past and using it as propaganda” (18, translation mine). The concerns that Pelaz López and Tomasoni mention are the exception to the rule, however, and merit further investigation and analysis in order for critics and audiences to fully understand the political implications of post-1975 Spanish historical film.
The 2010 film The Last Circus (Balada Triste de Trompeta) also spans the period of the Spanish Civil War and the early years of Franco’s dictatorship. The film was not as well received among Spanish audiences as Pan’s Labryinth, which is not altogether surprising, considering that it is significantly darker and more violent, and takes a distinctly pessimistic perspective on the events of the war and the dictatorship. Thus far, critics have focused on the shocking and anti-aesthetic style and content of director Alex de la Iglesia’s films. In a review of the film in the Spanish journal Filmhistoria online, Héctor Gómez Umbert points out the “disenchantment, frustration, anger [and] growing misanthropy” (np, translation mine) of de la Iglesia’s films. Peter Buse, Núria Triana-Toribio and Andrew Willis analyze the director’s political dispute with the Spanish government, which he believes is using national film funding to establish an “official style of Spanish cinema” (11) that specifically excludes films such as his that are critical of Spanish political history. However, there has been little critical analysis of The Last Circus, and thus far no one has attempted to compare this film with Pan’s Labyrinth.
This project is designed to fill the void left by my fellow scholars, placing The Last Circus in direct dialogue with Pan’s Labyrinth and situating the film within the tradition of films dealing with the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship. This will allow me to focus on Alex de la Iglesia’s method of engagement with the political, social and psychological legacy of the dictatorship in contemporary Spain. Since the country began to transition towards democracy in 1975, television and film have played a significant role in the formation of national identity. Spanish historical films have been crucial in keeping the past within the country’s historical consciousness, especially for a younger generation that did not personally experience either the war or the dictatorship. Yet, as Barry Jordan and Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas argue, the use of film and television as a reminder of the past can be problematic “because of the particular qualities of film as the medium most closely able to simulate reality through its moving images” (16). The re-imaging of the past is an inherently ideological process, and through this project I intend to highlight the ways in which Pan’s Labyrinth and The Last Circus communicate messages about the political and social state of contemporary Spain.
As I have previously noted, Pan’s Labyrinth presents a reductive image of the relationship between the Nationalist and Republican armies, and a highly simplified version of the role of the Maquis in the Spanish Civil War. While many scholars are willing to condone this simplification for the sake of historical reparations, it is important to recognize that this method of historical reinterpretation does not lead to a more complete understanding of the past. The Last Circus, in contrast, establishes a much more complex relationship between good and evil, blurring the boundaries and questioning the morality of all parties. I argue that the conflict between the two main characters of the film, which quickly devolves into a violent pattern of aggression and retaliation, reflects the state of moral ambiguity that marked much of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. In this way, the film’s director uses recurring patterns of violence to problematize the aftermath of the Civil War and its effect on personal and collective morality in Spain during the years of the Franco dictatorship. Finally, through the comparison with Pan’s Labyrinth, I plan to show that The Last Circus more accurately reflects the tumultuous psychological state of Spanish society and is crucial in coming to terms with the lasting effects of a long and traumatic history of violence.
My analysis of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Last Circus is based on the metaphors that these films use in order to facilitate conversations about these dark periods in Spain’s history (that is, the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship) that would not have taken place otherwise. I plan to structure this project as a comparison between Pan’s Labyrinth and The Last Circus, focusing on three major themes: childhood, fantasy and monsters. In both films, the events of the Spanish Civil War are seen through the eyes of child protagonists, Ofelia and Javier, respectively. Their subsequent psychological development can be understood as a consequence of the violence surrounding them. Both protagonists seek refuge in fantasy worlds (fairy tales in Ofelia’s case, and a traveling circus in Javier’s) where they must face and conquer monsters- both real and imaginary- in order to create order and peace in their lives. I will analyze these metaphors, translating them into the central preoccupations of Spanish audiences in the post-1975 era. It is through my comparison of these two films, and the analysis of film as both reality and refuge for Spanish audiences, that I will establish the social and political implications of Spanish historical cinema.
I also plan to base my analysis on the theory of the presentation of trauma through film as put forth by Joshua Hirsch in his book Afterimage: Film, Trauma and the Holocaust. Hirsch developed his theories based on the long history of Holocaust cinema, ranging from the single extant piece of motion picture footage taken during the Second World War to the critically acclaimed blockbuster of the late 1990s, Schindler’s List. In particular, I will work to expand on Hirsch’s argument that films about war “both help construct historical consciousness and embody a contradiction within historical consciousness” (7). Hirsch’s theory in Afterimage will allow me to move from a direct comparison of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Last Circus towards a more conceptual analysis of the ways in which film represents reality and replaces it, creating and shaping memory for subsequent generations. I believe that only through this larger, more global analysis will my project capture the uniqueness of the cinema of violence and social conflict.