Sunday, 17 December 2006

Historical labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth is superb. It has fairies, it has gore, and the acting and production are top notch. But I'm not going to go on about the film here: I want to talk about the historical background. The Spanish Civil War looms over their recent history as the Second World War looms over Britain and most other European countries. It began in July 1936 with General Franco's military uprising against the republican government, and ended when his forces took Madrid and Valencia in March 1939. At the end of the war, thousands on the republican side were put to death and Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975, when the country finally began the transition back to liberal democracy.

The film is set in 1944 in a remote mountain base where Franco's forces are combatting republican guerrillas, who are still hiding out after the war had been over for five years. The desperate position of these remnants is clearly portrayed, and any notion of the situation in Europe in that period only strengthens that picture. To the west, Portugal had already come under a right-wing dictatorship in the late 1920s; to the east was Italy where the fascism had begun under Mussolini even earlier. Franco was a military dictator who'd had material support from Italy (who had sent thousands of troops) and Nazi Germany (who had, among other things, tested out their bombing methods at Guernica). Six months after Franco took Madrid, Britain and France were at war with Germany.

The only allies the republicans had abroad were the Soviets. But with Soviet arms came Soviet orders: the Communist Party were to be in control and the republican resistance was to be centralised as a "People's Army" instead of the decentralised Popular Front. These imperatives led to the Barcelona May Days, when divisions came to a head between the Communists on the one hand and the anarchists and democratic socialists on the other. These events are recorded in a first-hand account by George Orwell and a 1995 film by Ken Loach.

Anyone living under a dictatorship in the twenty-first century would have the hope of escaping to somewhere liberal and tolerant — today, any western European country fits that description. But in 1944, France was the place for Spanish republicans to escape to, despite the fact it was under Nazi rule. Many escaped north over the Pyrennees from 1936 onwards (including Manu Chao's parents) but that avenue was gradually restricted. It is rare that any country will willingly accept massive numbers of refugees, and in this sense civil wars can become complicated international affairs.

After the unequivocally fascist governments of Germany and Italy fell, Franco's Spain (which shouldn't be described as fascist, but was more aligned with fascists than anyone else) was very isolated internationally, but Franco and his cronies, the Franquistas, ruled until his death in 1975. After that, Spain's King, whom Franco had groomed and named as his heir, ensured that democracy returned to Spain: there were political prisoner amnesties, a new constitution ratified by a referendum, and the long-banned Communist Party were allowed to campaign for election again (only to be stubbed with less than 10% of the vote). The test of this return to democracy came in 1981 when there was a coup attempt: it failed when the King declared, in a televised address, support for the elected parliament.

For me, knowing this history clarified and sharpened Pan's Labyrinth: the brutality of the Captain, the desperation of the guerrillas and the hopelessness felt by Ofelia, a little girl longing to escape a world where things "aren't so good", all make so much more sense.