March 1, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

I saw Pan's Labyrinth on Monday night, and I'm still feeling inspired by the story, nausated by some of the action, and generally down on the state of humanity.

The movie tells two interwoven stories: that of a battle between Spanish fascists and a guerilla band, and that of a girl caught up in a fairy tale. The girl's mother is married to the fascist Captain, extremely pregnant with his son and heir.

The fascist Captain is clearly the villain of the story, combining a distinct lack of interest in his wife as anything other than the bearer of his son with a professional interest in torture. His politics are cheerless, his interrogation style brutal, his depth of perception limited. His direct opponent, the resistance fighting in the hills and in his base, is a bit smarter, suffers more, and likely has a better cause - but is quite capable of inflicting death and pain itself.

Ofelia escapes this bleak world to a fairy tale with its own darkness, one in which she's the heroine but not always perfect. Her ally is a faun (hence the title) who isn't necessarily to be trusted either, and the rules of this world seem as rigid as the Captain's fascism.

On its multiple levels of possible interpretation, the New York Times asks:

"Pan's Labyrinth" is a political fable in the guise of a fairy tale. Or maybe it's the other way around. Does the moral structure of the children's story illuminate the nature of authoritarian rule? Or does the movie reveal fascism as a terrible fairy tale brought to life? The brilliance of "Pan's Labyrinth" is that its current of imaginative energy runs both ways.

I see the story illuminating many things, not least of which are the dark side of humans seeking power, of the panic that sets in when we are powerless, and the peace that comes only after self-sacrifice. (There's a lot of sacrifice.)

I started this post with a fairly clear vision of parallels between Ofelia's experience and Quakerism, but I'm finding them hard to articulate, so maybe the right answer is just to suggest that despite the violence, this is a movie that (adult) Quakers would do well to see. It's a story I'm sure none of us want to live, but it's important viewing on multiple levels.

May 21, 2006

Missions of power and peace

I frequently start First Day mornings with the soundtrack to The Mission playing. Movie soundtracks aren't usually inspiring, and this one has seen unfortunate use in coffee commercials and elsewhere, but somehow this soundtrack rises to convey hope, struggle, and even failure.

The movie itself is one piece of my path to Quakerism, raising difficult questions about issues like:

  • the relationship of worldly power and church

  • the difficulty of the choices between war and peace

  • the possibilities lost through racism and dehumanization

  • the question of obedience: who to obey, how to choose, and what obedience mean.

  • questions of redemption

I don't think the movie answers any of these questions, which may be why it's rarely pronounced a classic. Rather, it poses them, in a context most Americans have never heard of, the suppression of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay in the 1750s. (At about the same time, Quaker legislators were deciding whether to stay in the legislature or leave as it became clear that Pennsylvania's historically good relations with Native Americans were about to be shredded in the French and Indian war.)

Robert De Niro's portrayal of a slave-trader turned murderer turned penitent turned missionary turned military leader is, despite the mere two hours in which it takes place, both plausible and compelling. Jeremy Irons' character is much more consistent, as a man devoted to God and his order, and the conflicts between the two of them fuel the movie as much as the horrifying takeover of the missions by the Spanish and Portuguese. The Guarani people aren't merely adherents, but play a more active role than the Spanish or Portuguese wanted to admit.

The movie may well have idealized the missions and the Guarani - not everyone is so fond of the Jesuit missions. Though it doesn't mention it explicitly, the movie also foreshadows the very real future devastation of Paraguay a century or so later in the War of the Triple Alliance.