HIS FIRST CORPSE AT AGE FOUR: Del Toro’s Mexico is a “wonderful, violent place.”
To understand the difference between Hollywood’s notion of fairy tales and Guillermo del Toro’s, compare the faun in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with the one in Pan’s Labyrinth. The Narnia faun — well-spoken, with his muffler and his cozy drawing room — could pass for a goatish version of C.S. Lewis himself. Del Toro’s version — well, it looks like something he thinks he saw as a little kid.
“It came from behind the armoire of my grandmother. I’m sure it was a lucid dream or something. The fact is, I have a very personal place for monsters in my life. They are not just creatures of literature or cinema, to me they are archetypical spiritual beings.”
Del Toro was in fact asked to direct Narnia, but he had objections to the story. “I said, ‘Look, I’m not the guy because in my version I don’t think the lion would resurrect.’ I try to be sincere with the material I accept.”
He’s sincere all right, but in a whimsical way. Many have commented on his playfulness in dealing with the dark side of existence. He’s fascinated with violence, death, bugs, monsters, and evil, but he’s cheerful about it. And he’s not sentimental when it comes to innocence. “I don’t idealize childhood,” he says, “as you can see in Pan’s Labyrinth or even Chronos (his first film, which established him as a major filmmaker in 1993). It’s the time where emotions and impulses are unfiltered, including faith and belief and love. That brings me very close to the spirit of fairy tales, in which brutal things and brutal rites of passage occur to little children.”
Maybe he owes this attitude to his own experience as a child growing up in Mexico. Much of the brutality he witnessed was not imaginary. “Mexico is a wonderful, violent place. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. Life in Mexico is anarchic and unstructured and brutal, but it is there, and life is out there on the street. You can smell it, you can feel it, you can be there. And part of it is violence. I’ve seen more corpses than the regular First World kid would have. I saw my first corpse at age four in a highway accident, and I’ve seen people stabbed, shot, burned to death, and so forth, accidentally, just by walking down the street. For Chronos, I befriended a few embalmers because I was doing research for the movie. And I worked as a volunteer at a mental hospital for a little bit, and it was next door to the morgue, and I would have lunch at the cemetery. So it’s not your average formative years.”
Like Luis Buñuel, he indulges in Catholic imagery, but he describes his faith as “lapsed.” “The image for me was a pile of aborted fœtuses in a morgue. It was about five feet tall. When I saw that, there was an impending sense of mercilessness that I couldn’t explain. I saw it and it made me feel that if there was any intelligence in the cosmos it was a cold intelligence.”