How far do the narratives of the films you have studied rely on dramatic moments of confrontation and how far on a more subtle change over time?
The two very different Spanish films All about my Mother (AAMM) and Pan’s Labyrinth use complex narratives and character representations to explore gender ideologies. I would suggest that both films rely in part on dramatic moments of confrontation but also demonstrate a more subtle change over time; in this essay I will explain this view.
AAMM is a powerful melodrama, exhibiting many of Almodovar’s signature traits and exemplifying his exhuberant, challenging post-Franco style. As a melodrama, it is hardly surprising that there are many dramatic moments within the narrative and throughout the film we see various confrontational moments between the characters. For example, as Manuela enters Barcelona in a taxi there is a violently shocking scene which introduces us to Agrado as she is assaulted by a client. She is defiant in her response and in this way Almodovar sets his agenda: this is a film which challenges traditional gender roles and our perceptions of what is and what ‘should be’.
The scene is perhaps all the more shocking because up until this point, in Madrid, there has been high drama in the sudden death of Manuela’s son but her reaction to it is subtly presented and gender representations are far more traditional and in line with the hegemonic view. As Manuela’s somewhat passive quest to find Lola continues, the narrative is punctuated by various melodramatic moments of confrontation but Almodovar’s intention is clearly not merely to present a set of over-exaggerated characters in improbable scenarios and it is perhaps his subtlety that allows the film to communicate its real meaning.
Although Manuela is the main character and it is her actions which move the narrative along initially, it is perhaps through all of his characters and their intertwined experiences that Almodovar more fully explores gender and sexuality and questions hegemonic values. Each of his characters goes on a journey and whilst the overtly melodramatic narrative is what keeps the audience entertained (if somewhat disbelievingly) it is perhaps the more subtle undertones of change which we can only appreciate once the film is finished that contain its true message. Manuela, the eternal mother, has a chance to be so to an infant again; Agrado has found acceptance and purpose which does not rely on the sale of her body; Huma is free of the destructive and toxic Nina; Rosa’s mother, who represents perhaps more than any other character the hegemonic values of Spanish society that Almodovar is challenging, is shown to be uncaring in the worst way by rejecting her grandchild and thereby loses her right to have access to him. Rosa, of course, is dead but before her death she had seamlessly morphed from nun to earthly mother. I would argue that all of these changes are subtle and not reliant on moments of dramatic confrontation, and that actually it is these changes – these people – which are the film’s narrative. Although the dramatic moments are entertaining, they are the bass line and the subtler changes are the melody.
In terms of narrative, Pan’s Labyrinth is of course quite different from AAMM but I would argue that in terms of the importance of dramatic moments of confrontation versus subtler changes, there are some similarities. As a gothic fairytale/fantasy film set during the Spanish civil war, we would expect dramatic confrontations as binary oppositions are a key convention of the genre and confrontations a symptom of conflict; and indeed, we are not disappointed. The villain of the tale, Captain Vidal, is at the heart of most of the dramatic confrontations within the film, with the Doctor, Ofelia, Carmen, the rebels and eventually, the ultimate confrontation with Mercedes which results in his death. As in AAMM, these moments are certainly key to the development of the narrative and serve to highlight del Toro’s representation of Franco’s hegemonic masculinity as violent, controlling and confrontational.
But when we look at the female characters in the film, as indeed we must, there is a recognisably subtler and more sensitive approach both in their representation and in their roles and functions within the narrative. Mercedes, as the ‘helper’, grows in strength and courage as the film progresses, moving gradually from a somewhat sidelined observer of Vidal’s terror to a heroic central player and successful challenger, killing the villain and saving the rebels (who happen to be men). Ofelia of course, undergoes enormous change throughout the tale, losing her mother and confronting various creatures as well as Vidal as she goes but perhaps more significantly, failing to confront her own fear of growing up and instead opting to stay a child forever. Carmen is represented as weak and conforming to the hegemonic ideology that women should be subservient to their husbands and she dies during childbirth, perhaps to demonstrate that this view is outdated. In this film, the necessity for women to be mothers is thus challenged through both mother and daughter, as Carmen dies for it and Ofelia openly rejects it.
One conclusion which could be drawn is that although there are many moments of dramatic confrontation in Pan’s narrative, they perhaps merely mask the subtler changes happening beneath them. Or that del Toro has intentionally constructed these confrontations within the world of the men and within Ofelia’s fantasy world to allow us to observe that subtler changes which they promote in our heroine and her helper. The eventual result, of course, being that the situation in Vidal’s ‘family’ mirrors that of the war with the rebels: he fails to recognise the subtle changes occurring around him and pays for it dearly. Because in actuality, it is the female characters who are in control and their experiences being explored. As I said, Vidal and the dramatic moments of confrontation that he is so frequently part of, are the cause and the subtler changes within the female characters the effect.In conclusion, I would say that as with most narratives, dramatic moments of confrontation help to move things along in both of these films but are by no means completely relied upon to create meaning and communicate with the audience. Both films, in different ways, are about women and their experiences and subtlely is also required to communicate these experiences with the poignancy and genuine feeling that they do.