Surviving, even growing, on fantasies

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro's award-winning film "Pan's Labyrinth" continues to haunt me weeks after viewing. This is not a film for younger children; not escapist entertainment for the faint of heart.

Set in rural Spain, the movie captures a bleak period in the history of that country, 1944, a time when fascist dictator Francisco Franco ruled with an iron hand. Opposition to Franco's totalitarian regime was brutally sought out and squelched. Despite the dangers, partisans of different political persuasions formed underground cadres. These cadres fought with guerilla tactics aimed at establishing a new order.

Deception and subterfuge were rampant; fear engulfed the most mundane encounters. This was a bleak, dark historic period captured eloquently by the Del Toro through the eyes of an impressionable young girl.

Bereaved by the sudden death of her father, the 11-year-old Ofelia's life is uprooted when her mother remarries a sadistic fascist commandant. They met when he frequented her father's shoe repair shop, stationed deep in an area of heavily forested mountains, a world unfamiliar yet haunting to the young girl.

Her mother is a wistful, passive woman, frail and in the last stages of a difficult pregnancy. She does not have the strength or the energy to attend to her daughter. The stepfather is vain and self-serving; his only interest is the yet-to-be-born male progeny.

Left to her own resources, Ofelia is not ready to cast aside childhood and clings to beloved fairytales for comfort. She is the kind of child that reads stories about fairies and magic lands, longing to believe what she reads is real.

As in the classic fairytales, good and evil exist side by side. Descending into a labyrinth in the forest, choices are made to follow demons into darkness or seek fairies in the light.

Increasingly isolated in her private world, she finds solace and compassion from one of the partisans, a brave woman working undercover at the officer's camp. This compassionate soul provides the only human nurturing Ofelia receives in the film.

This character respects the child, and rather then taunting her for holding on to childhood stories, she realizes how essential they are to Ofelia's very being.

The magical world helps Ofelia to cope with and make sense of the horrific circumstances she encounters every day. This cinematic child shares many qualities with children in crisis: the bereaved, neglected and abused. Having a rich fantasy life is often the only way some children can survive. The beauty of this powerful tapestry of a film continues to the very last frame.

Caring adults who are sensitive to children's fantasies and daydreams can listen for clues to understand a child. Many years ago, I worked with a young girl who had just spent two years in foster care after her mother was murdered. The perpetrator was her father.

This child was a witness to the crime. Although she had a family willing to provide a loving home, it took two years of legal wrangling before she was released from foster care. Soon thereafter, I began to work with her, and we have maintained a relationship that continues to this day.

One afternoon, my little student arrived with a little white Bible after attending a class to prepare for her first Holy Communion. We sat down quietly in the back of the office, and before we could start our session, she shared a dream. In it, she was floating above the clouds, up to a place high in the heavens.

In the distance, she heard music and saw figures that looked like angels and seemed to be floating in the air. As she got closer, she realized one of the angels was her mother. She tried to come closer as the figures disappeared into a mist. As she finished recounting her dream, I shared that I, too, had had a similar experience.

Another child of my acquaintance was accused of being a liar because of his fantasies. One story in particular stands out.

He recalled telling some children of an Uncle Johnny who owned a ranch in Texas. This was no ordinary ranch: Rather, it grew only four-leaf clovers, and whoever received a clover would have good luck and never be sad again.

After hearing his story, the children responded by calling the boy a liar, although lying was hardly his intention. This child was grieving the death of a parent. His most fervent wish was to be happy and share that happiness with others.

Children such as the examples above and the fictional Ofelia need to make sense of their world when it has spun out of control. When the time comes to cast off the fantasy, and they are ready to accept reality with all its ambiguity and sorrow, they will.

Katherine Patterson, the beloved children's writer and author of such classics as "Road to Terabithia," suggests in an interview about the film, "Finding Neverland:" "The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don't see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify."

I am in such awe of children who have the capacity to believe in their fantasies that become a lifeline in what may be an untenable situation. And I have enough faith most of these children will pass through that stage and grow up.

Or, one may wonder if we ought to think of it as "growing down."