Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Odds and Ends.

I've had painfully few blog entries this month and I apologize. It was quite remiss of me, but I shall endeaver to make amends. As tomorrow will usher in the month of March (meaning Spring is almost near!), I intend this post to sum up the latest goings-on in my little world.

I've enrolled in two classes this month and the coursework has sucked in most of my free time. For my American Literature class, we read one book per week, which I find to be rather difficult, considering that the prose is 19th century. However, the class is quite interesting as I am learning so much about American History. Along with staples such as Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter, we are also reading some obscure books, such as Catherine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, and William Wells Brown's Clotel. I find it fascinating to compare the differences between British Literature and American Literature. Whereas the former is mainly concerned with issues of class (especially "gentility"), the latter focuses on issues of migration, assimilation, and religion. Hope Leslie, in particular, is an early proto-feminist novel, where Magawisca, an Indian woman, stands as an example of morality and strength. Furthermore, the novel ends with Esther, the meek niece of a Puritan governor, rejecting marriage, but impressing the people around her by her own individuality, nevertheless. I am also intrigued African-American narratives, especially in the comparison between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Clotel.

The other class I am taking is a fiction class in which we write, read, and critique our own works as well as our classmates’. This class is, of course, much more creative than the former, although it is equally hard. There's a substantial amount of writing to do and since the class is small, the instructor insisted that we all had to speak up and give our input. So even if I can manage to not read a book or two (or 4!) for the American Literature class, I cannot afford to neglect any part of the coursework for my fiction class. When I submitted my first story, most people said that although they liked the descriptions, they wanted to see more "action", more on the level of plot. My second story is due this week but it is turning into a hassle because I fear that the plot, though simple, might be difficult to contain within the short-story format. Anyway, we shall see.

I watched the Oscars this Sunday (yes, all of it!) but was rather disappointed with the results. I heard film critics predict, before the event, that The Departed would win Best Picture because the Academy feels be obliged to award Martin Scorsese that honor, since the latter had been making films for a long time. I haven't seen The Departed (political thrillers aren't really my thing) so I can't comment about it. I was rooting for Pan's Labyrinth to win Best Picture in the Foreign Films category but that award was given to a much less well-known film, The Lives of Others. Little Children also didn't get garner any awards, much to my disappointment, since I thought Jackie Haley gave a compelling portrait of a troubled former child molester. I haven't seen Dreamgirls or The Queen so I can't vouch for Jennifer Hudson or Helen Mirren's performance. I think Helen Mirren is a fabulous, accomplished actress though but she did face some tough competition. Then of course, the newspapers and websites were flooded with the "Best Dressed and Worst Dressed at the Oscars" type of articles, some of which were amusing to read with their snide remarks and tongue-in-cheek humor.

My grad schools applications are almost at an end. I have one more school left to apply but that isn't due for a whole month yet. I haven't received any decisions from the schools so that's made me anxious lately.

And last but not least, I couldn’t resist the after-President's Day sales!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sacrifice and Salvation in The Chronicles of Narnia and Pan's Labyrinth

Religion is a central theme to both Pan's Labyrinth and The Chronicles of Narnia (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). With respect to the latter, C.S. Lewis stated that one of his motives for writing the Narnia series is to instill Christian ideology in the minds of young readers. This ideology is projected through the character of Aslan, the King of Narnia. Aslan, though a benevolent ruler, is, nevertheless, "not a tame lion." Besides being valiant, he also reveals his gentler side. The children immediately take to Aslan, obeying his commands while trusting his judgements. Aslan comes to their aid in times of trouble and allows the children's own natures to flourish. Under Aslan's guidance, the children have a chance to test their own faith and bravery, win the favor of the Narnians, and finally rule as Kings and Queens of Narnia. By his ability to create the land of Narnia, enable animals to speak, and act as a guarding for the children, Aslan functions as God. This God is distinctly Christian in that Aslan resembles a Christ-like figure, especially when he sacrifices his life to save the life on another, and thus, save all of Narnia. When the White Witch demands the Narnians to turn in Edmund, the erring Pevensie sibling, for having made false promises to her, Aslan makes a pact with the White Witch to go in Edmund's stead. The White Witch, who is all the more eager to destroy Aslan, immediately agrees since she also fears Aslan's powers. Both Susan and Lucy stare in horror as Aslan is tortured, humiliated, and brutally murdered by the White Witch and her accomplices. However, just as the children mourn for his loss, a miracle happens and Aslan comes back to life. In other words, he is resurrected. He explains to the children that he is able to come back to life because he was innocent to begin with, and had given his life to protect the life of another (in this case, Edmund, whose own innocence he believed in). Aslan asserts that the White Witch, oblivious to the power of love and sacrfice, could weave no spell that could destroy him. Thus, Aslan returns to life and helps to save Narnia.

This notion of Christian sacrifice is also hightlighted in Pan's Labyrinth. Unlike in The Chronicles of Narnia, however, a 12 year old girl functions as a Christ-like figure in this film. She seems to be everything Aslan is not, for she is not male, mature, or strong. Ofelia is thin, wan, neglected, lonely, dreamy, and sensitive. Everything one would not expect in a typical hero. But despite that, she finds the Labyrinth and sets out on a journey to eventually find peace. In the process, she proves her bravery and wisdom. Furthermore, she asserts her belief in faith: she believes in the goodness of Pan's words; she believes in order and harmony; she believes in love and beauty; she believes that goodness will prevail over evil. Like Christ (and Adam), she shows that she too can succumb to temptation. She eats the "forbidden fruit", but later, given the chance to repent for her sins, realizes the extent of her folly and is more zealous in her "faith" (in heeding Pan's words in this case). Although her faith is tested several times, the crucial act occurs towards the end of her journey, when Pan asks her to surrender her new-born baby brother. At this moment, Ofelia finds herself within inches away from attaining her dream. Pan tells her that if she were to obey him, she would no longer suffer under the commands of Vidal's dictatorship, for she would then be transported to her magical kingdom where there would be only peace. Despite the temptations associated with this offer, Ofelia refuses to hand over her baby brother on account of her love for him. She could not bear to have his blood shed in order to attain her dream. She was prepared to save his life rather than her own. Ofelia's sacrifice at the end of the film allows her to transcend the world of mortals. Pan reveals to her that she is the rightful Princess because she distinguished herself through the noblity of her actions, especially with regard to the sacrifice. She cared deeply for the baby and it was vital that a true Princess knew what it was to love another, to give your life to save another's. In the end, we see that Ofelia too is resurrected: she returns to life and is said to have had a peaceful reign for many, many years, adding beauty and love to the world of mortals.

Through the use of Christian imagery, both The Chronicles of Narnia and Pan's Labyrinth show the importance of sacrifice as a means of salvation, teaching the children and other viewers alike that the concept of sacrifice is central to Faith, and that the sincerity of love is what will sustain us in the end. However, it is worth noting that in both these films, strict adherence to Scripture is not maintained. Both these films make use of fantasy. In both, Christianity coexists with something fantastical, primitive, almost Pagan. The world of Narnia is filled with other creatures from mythology, and so is the world of Pan's Labyrinth. Thus, both films show that sacrifice is not only a central element to Christianity, but that it is vital to all types of religions, both the modern and primitive. Furthermore, both films show that it is indeed possible to mix the Pagan and the Christian.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Review of Pan's Labyrinth

Last Tuesday, I had a chance to see the critically acclaimed film Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) directed by Mexican director Guillermo Del Torro.

It is truly one of the most captivating films I have ever seen. Everything about it--from the plot, the special effects, the themes, the acting--contributes to making this film a masterpiece. Out of all this, I think its strength lies in its use of the fairy tale that is at the core of the film. This isn't the first time that the fairy tale motif is used in the medium of film or literature to translate historical facts or explain psychic phenomena. The use of the fairy tale in Pan's Labyrinth enables this film to speak to a variety of audiences, and consequently, allow it to transcend all sorts of classification. In this sense, Pan's Labyrinth rises above the generic, the ordinary. It is neither a children's film nor one exclusively intended for adults. Similarly, there is no restriction in terms of setting: there is a significant time-span: the story of the princess in the underground is ancient, but Ofelia lives in 1944, traversing different time-periods by means of her imagination. While it can fall in the real of science fiction/ fantasy, it also has elements of horror and drama. This is a film, very much like Whale Rider, where fact and fiction commingle seamlessly, where we are what we dream, where strength lies in Imagination.

Pan's Labyrinth is a story about a lonely 12 year-old girl, Ofelia, who goes to live with her pregnant mother and new stepfather in the Spanish country side during 1944. The Spanish Civil-War has just ended and her stepfather, Captain Vidal, is assigned the task of getting ride of an anarchist militia that lurks in the woods surrounding his residence. Ofelia is a very imaginative girl, finding solace in the company of books of fairy tales that she brings with her. One particularly speaks of the legend of a lost princess, who ventured from the peace of the underworld, where she knew no pain, death or disease, to the world of the mortals above ground, eventually forgetting her past and with it, her legacy. The legend predicts that the lost princess will one day return to her Palace, reclaim her identity, and bring freedom and beauty in the world.

It is interesting to note that Ofelia's adventures in the magical realm mirrors the external political conflict taking place around her. As Ofelia finds herself trapped under Captain Vidal's orders, she tries to rebel and so approaches the magical Labyrinth secretly, when no one sees her. As the militia gains power, through the help of the doctor and Mercedes, Ofelia gains more entrance into her magical world. The militia is in fact, fed and nourished, just as Ofelia destroys a horrible toad that was sapping nutrition from the Tree at the center of the Labyrinth. When Ofelia fails her second test, as when she eats the fruit belonging to the Pale Man, she releases a Monster into both her magical world as well as the real world. Captain Vidal gains power this time, capturing the rebel soldiers and torturing them. Concurrently, her mother is weakened by her preganancy, on the verge of losing the baby that sustains her relationship with her dictator husband. When Ofelia is eager to perform the last task and win the Faun's favor, the rebel militia are freed and rises in power. As Ofelia's prophesy is fulfilled, Vidal's regime crumbles and freedom is finally won.

Another instance this film is unique is that it enables women to be agents of Freedom. While the legend spoke of a lost princess who will one day return to restore peace to her kingdom, Ofelia, acts out the princess's valiant deeds. She bravely sets out to perform the tasks the Faun asks of her. As the film progresses, Mercedes, Vidal's housekeeper, also rises in importance. It becomes clear that Mercedes risks her own life and helps her brother and his friends who are in the anarchist militia, despite living under Vidal's roof.

The link between Mercedes and Ofelia is made earlier in the film when Mercedes comforts the friendless, neglected young girl, by offering her comfort and a willing ear. Both Ofelia and Mercedes have poor mother-figures as examples of strength. In Ofelia's case, her mother is weak and sick with a pregnancy, abused her by husband who desires the baby more than his wife. While we know nothing of Mercedes' mother, we do know that she has been greatly influenced by her brother, a rebel fighting for freedom. Ofelia and Mercedes also both rebel, striving to attain freedom: Ofelia tries to return to her fantasy kingdom, and Mercedes wants to stand by her brother's cause, one in which Vidal and his cruel dictatorship is overthrown and freedom and equality will be restored to the people.

Mercedes says, when Vidal confronts her about her ability to carry out espionage under his own eyes, that the reason she was able to get away with her actions was because she, being a woman, is considered invisible. Mercedes asserts that invisibility becomes a source of power for a woman. She need no longer hide behind the shadows, but can use her strength of mind and body to her advantage. Similarly, Ofelia looks timid and lanky on the outside, but is immensely courageous on the inside. In her invisibility, the loneliness that thrust her into the folds of invisibility, Ofelia was able to fill her mind with stories, and being naturally curious as well as neglected, she was able to explore her world and find the Faun, thus being mistress of her own Fantasy story.

Del Torro shows that political freedom is attained alongside freedom of the imagination. When Ofelia's fantasy world is given full reign, only then is Vidal destroyed. Del Torro's stance on women is given most weight at the end of the film, when he links Ofelia to a Christ-like figure. Ofelia, an innocent, virtuous young girl, sacrifices her life in order to save an innocent, and thus, liberate humanity, after defeating evil. By elevating Ofelia to Christ's status, Del Torro's subversive act questions the precepts of religion, Christianity, resurrection, and gender roles.

Along with its thematic elements, stunning visual effects and dedication to the Art of Storytelling Pan's Labyrinth reminds us that belief in the Imagination is vital to the triumph of the human consciousness.