AAR Paper Proposal: “A Beautiful Anarchy”

This November, I will be in Chicago giving a paper at the annual AAR meeting. If you plan on being there, be sure to come to the session for the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group, where you can hear me give a paper on the films of Guillermo del Toro. To whet your appetite, I have posted the proposal for the paper below.

“A Beautiful Anarchy: Religion, Fascism, and Violence in the Theopolitical Imagination of Guillermo del Toro”

In a 2006 interview, Guillermo del Toro, the director of films such as Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, explains why he turned away from his Catholic faith in the following way:
I was a choir boy. I was a member of the Virgin Mary Society. And I was this and I was that. And then, when you reach your teenage years, I discovered that the world was much wider. I started working in a place where I had to go through the morgue. One day I saw such a horrifying sight at the morgue that instantly showed me there was no real order in the universe, at least not a conscious order dictated by a guy in white robes and a long beard. It really shook me. I saw a pile of fetuses that was about five feet tall. There was such a harrowing variety of things going on there on every level. I just realized, I guess we are on our own, so we better make the best of it. It’s this world that I saw that made me love with a passion the world that I was creating.
Because of his encounter with the reality of evil in this world, del Toro set out to make films that challenge and subvert what he calls “the Establishment”—i.e., the structural powers of evil that result in horrific situations like Auschwitz or morgues full of dead children. He states in the same interview that “horror and fantasy saved my brain” and “allowed me to survive,” because these fantastical genres provide a way of re-imagining the world in which we live. According to del Toro, there are two kinds of fairytales and horror films: those that are in favor of the present world—the “Establishment”—and those that are against it. One kind uncritically affirms our present reality; the other kind, and the one del Toro prefers, criticizes it with “a beautiful anarchy.”

Del Toro’s “beautiful anarchy” takes the form of standard good-vs.-evil dramas, but his movies consistently merge the so-called “real world” with a world of fantasy. The fantastical world is not a false reality or mixture of real and unreal, but rather it is, as he says, the truly Real world. It is the world in which we live seen for what it really is. The genre of fantasy allows del Toro to expose the artifice of our everyday lives through the unfolding of what he calls “spiritual reality,” which is not opposed to our embodied existence but rather transcends it. Fantasy is an alternative imaginative framework that does not escape from reality but resituates it within a more palpable and coherent moral context. Three films, in particular, demonstrate del Toro’s artistic project: Hellboy, Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Each of these films portrays a clear conflict between good and evil, but unlike standard escapist movies, these films use the fantastical as a way of rebelling against certain social and political forces. Specifically, del Toro identifies the evil reality with political fascism: the character of Hellboy is discovered by the Nazis, and The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth both take place in the shadow of Franco’s fascist regime in Spain. Moreover, fascism functions both literally and symbolically in these stories. Del Toro’s films are a “beautiful anarchy” against actual fascist ideologies as well as the broader structures of death which fascism symbolically represents in his stories.

In this essay, I will explore the nature of del Toro’s “beautiful anarchy” by looking at del Toro’s “theopolitical imagination,” to use William Cavanaugh’s phrase. Like Cavanaugh, del Toro recognizes that our entire human existence is imagined. We live and act within an imagined framework, one which Cavanaugh explores theologically and del Toro through film. According to del Toro, in the aforementioned interview, all reality is, in a very real sense, imagined:
The entire world we live in is fabricated: Republican/Democrat, left/right, morning/night, geography and borders—all these things are conceits. Borders are not visible from a satellite picture. The fact [is] that you can have a civil war where two sides kill each other, and essentially from afar they look exactly the same. They are both the same human beings. They share the same taste for food. They sing the same songs. This imagined conceit can create such horrors.
Because our collective, sociopolitical imagination “can create such horrors,” del Toro feels obligated to use the medium of film to imagine an alternative way of existence, one that actively rebels against the horrors of our world and refuses to affirm systems of oppression and violence. Hellboy is thus a demon who fights against supernatural forces of evil. Carlos, in The Devil’s Backbone, helps a group of other children (orphaned due to the Spanish Civil War) to fight against the murderous Jacinto, whom del Toro says is the embodiment of fascism in the film. And Ophelia, in Pan’s Labyrinth, rebels against Captain Vidal, who is part of Franco’s regime.

I will argue that despite del Toro’s denial of faith, his films present a thoroughly Christian theopolitical imagination. Regarding Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has said that “it was a truly profane film, a layman’s riff on Catholic dogma.” And yet his friend and fellow filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu said that it is “a truly Catholic film.” I argue that Iñárritu was correct. I will explore the religious imagination in each of these three films in turn, concluding with a critical analysis of how violence is used in del Toro’s fantasies and what Christian theology has to gain from an engagement with contemporary world cinema.


Ben Myers said…
Sounds excellent, David — and I love the phrase "beautiful anarchy".
i look forward to seeing more of this. i am curious, however, about the theme of bodily resurrection in the movie.
del toro deliberately avoided a bodily resurrection. in what way does that fulfill an embodied resistance or subversion?

That's an interesting point, and one I will certainly examine. It may be the case that del Toro is too gnostic, but I will have to give that some more thought first. Thanks for the comment!
Duke said…
Peace be with the reader.
The time has come, the harvest is ripe.

The Faithful Witness
Anonymous said…
Based on what I've seen and read so far I think that Hellboy II will be an even clearer exemplification of the features you zero in on for this paper, David. I hope you are able to engage it as well.
byron smith said…
Pan's Labrynth was one of my favourite films of 2006. I'll have to go and check out some of these other films now. Sounds like a fascinating paper.