Childhood in Post-Franco Spanish Cinema

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, one of the chapters of my PhD thesis explores the figure of the child in post-Franco Spanish cinema.  Given the diffuseness of this subject matter, and the relative gap in terms of scholarship on the child in Spanish cinema (Sarah Wright’s recently-published monograph The Child in Spanish Cinema is the first book-length study of this topic), I narrowed the focus of my chapter to the intersection of childhood and history in four key films: El espíritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973); Cría cuervos/Raise Ravens (Carlos Saura, 1976); El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001); and El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006).  This term I’ve suspended my PhD studies to take up a temporary Teaching Fellowship in the department of Film & Visual Culture at my institution, and have had the opportunity to teach an Honours module based on my PhD research.  As a result, I’ve recently rewatched three of the above films (Espíritu; Cría; Laberinto) with my Honours students, and in so doing, my curiosity in the visual rhetoric that circulates amongst these films was renewed.

The most recent of the three films – El laberinto del fauno – repeatedly and explicitly engages the previous two films through visual citations.  Clearly, the films are narratively and thematically comparable in that they all deal with the child’s escape into fantasy, imagination, and fairytale, with death, and with the politics of the Civil War and Francoist Spain.  However, this post focuses on the implicit visual connections between the films.  I’m certainly not the first scholar to point out that the later film references the earlier two films – see, for example, this piece by Paul Julian Smith.  That said, I think the parallels are worth restating because they reveal the extent to which Mexican director del Toro inserts his film within a specifically Spanish history of cinematic childhood.

Indeed, within the first few minutes of the film, El laberinto del fauno visually cites both Cría cuervos and El espíritu de la colmena.  The car in which protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) stops so that the latter can get some fresh air.  As Carmen composes herself, Ofelia wanders off into the woods, looking up at the trees above her.  The point-of-view shot recalls a moment in Cría cuervos when Ana (Ana Torrent) looks up at the trees in her garden, before she sees/imagines herself leaping off the roof of a nearby building.

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Still from El laberinto del fauno
CC_trees
Still from Cría cuervos

This is followed by a reference to the Don José sequence in El espíritu de la colmena, when the young Ana (Ana Torrent) grants the class mannequin the ability to see by attaching his eyes.  In place of a mannequin, Ofelia encounters a stone statue, and inserts a round stone, which she finds on the ground nearby, into the open eye socket.

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Still from El laberinto del fauno
EC_Don_Jose
Still from El espíritu de la colmena

Moreover, the Falangist symbol of the yoke and arrows, which adorns the cars in which Ofelia and her mother travel, constitutes a further visual reference to Erice’s film, in which the same symbol appears on a building of the village Hoyuelos in the opening sequence.

These visual citations appear throughout El laberinto del fauno.  For instance, the Captain is repeatedly pictured shaving in his quarters – an act which reminds us of the playful moment in El espíritu de la colmena when, in the absence of their father, Isabel (Isabel Tellería) instructs her younger sister Ana how to shave.  Similarly, the mud-encrusted Ofelia’s emergence from the tree, having completed her first task, recalls the mournful Ana and her mud beard in Cría cuervos.

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Still from El laberinto del fauno
CC_Ana_mud_beard
Still from Cría cuervos

Furthermore, the bearded doctor of El laberinto del fauno recalls the bearded doctor, who, at the end of El espíritu de la colmena, insists that Ana will recover from her traumatic experiences.  In addition, the monstrousness of maternity embodied by Ofelia’s mother Carmen in El laberinto del fauno resonates with María’s cancerous womb in Cría cuervos.  This link is underscored by the visual echoes between the scene in which Carmen gives birth to Ofelia’s baby brother in El laberinto del fauno, with women bustling around with bloodied sheets, and the scene in which María is dying in Cría cuervos, where the maid Rosa acts as a nurse, removing bloodied sheets from the bed.  The significances of these visual citations are tied up with gender, a theme which has, for the most part, not yet been analysed in detail, and this is precisely one of the themes I investigate in my thesis.

A handful of visual citations concerned with death, devastation, and destruction also link the three films in question.  Vidal’s broken pocket watch recalls Fernando’s pocket watch in El espíritu de la colmena.  Its unreliability, combined with the careful attention the Captain affords to its cleaning, demonstrates an obsessive concern with order and precision that is destined to fail.  The train wreck caused by the maquis in El laberinto del fauno reminds the viewer of the symbolic importance of the train in El espíritu de la colmena.  The train’s derailment in the later film constitutes a symbol of how progress was brought to a halt under Franco.  The burial of Ofelia’s mother, who dies during childbirth, recalls the proliferation of death in general across these films, but also more specifically Ana’s isolated ceremony of mourning for her guinea pig Roni in Cría cuervos.  Finally, Ofelia drugs the Captain by spiking his drink, implicitly referencing Ana’s attempts to poison her father and aunt by lacing their drinks with what she believes to be poisonous powder in Cría cuervos.

Clearly, the resonances between these films extend beyond what I’ve pointed out in this short post.  However, what I hope to have demonstrated here is that El laberinto del fauno, in spite of its transnational production history (directed by a Mexican filmmaker, starring both Spanish and Latin American actors and actresses, financed by both Spanish and Mexican production companies), is positioned within a lineage of Spanish films centred on the intersection of childhood and history.  In my thesis, as mentioned above, I dedicate a chapter to the exploration of these three films in conjunction with El espinazo del diablo.  As I’m still working towards the completion of my thesis, any thoughts, pointers, comments are most welcome on what I’ve presented here.

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