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Horror Actressing: Maribel Verdú in "Pan's Labyrinth"

by Jason Adams

As long as there have been haunted houses there have been housekeepers keeping them, and the role of the housekeeper in a horror film is a tried and true one that film-makers can and have spun off a dozen different ways. There's the strange and sapphic Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Rebecca; there's the seemingly good-natured but with a hell of a secret Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) in The Others; and there's the bluntly unfriendly type typified by Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) in The Haunting who gets to speak the immortal line, "In the night. In the dark."

Guillermo Del Toro would of course be familiar with all these tropes, which is one of the reasons why I think his spin on the role with the great Maribel Verdú in Pan's Labyrinth is so fascinating...

Her character Mercedes might seem like a mystery to Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who's always catching the tail-end of her sneaking around having surreptitious conversations, but Del Toro shows us those conversations. Every opportunity they get to complicate and study the contours of this woman they take it, and double that -- she's nobody's specter.

For every scene where Mercedes is glimpsed in the background of Ofelia's "upstairs" life we seem to get one where we then follow Mercedes "downstairs" and behind the scenes, not just making this household run (there's lots of comedy early on with the colorful cooks) but then actively seeking to subvert and disrupt it; she's a rebel in washer-woman rags, filling up the bath-tub so all's the better to drown the fascists in it.  

This makes her a figure of both fascination and terror for Ofelia, as the girl is a part of the ruling class -- Mercedes listens to Ofelia's stories and gives her advice (telling her to be wary of fauns, for instance) all while holding the literal keys to the kingdom, and working to bring it all crashing down. She clearly holds no ill will for the girl -- Del Toro says he cast Verdu because of the tremendous sadness she's so good at effortlessly projecting -- but Mercedes is her own rich and complex woman, house to keep or no. Ofelia has her day dreams but Mercedes is a knight in the real world.

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Reader Comments (7)

Maribel Verdu is such a treasure. Loved her in this, Y tu mama tamien, and Blancanieves.

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPoliVamp

I remember that the reason Guillermo casted Verdu for the role of Mercedes was because of Alfonso Cuaron's suggestion and it ended up being something magical. I feel like Verdu got overlooked in the awards circuit as she was great in that role and should've gotten more consideration for Best Supporting Actress.

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I'm much more lukewarm on this film than most people, but Verdu is incredible in it.

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

In Spain Maribel Verdú was considered a mediocre comedy actress in the 90s, although she was OK in Belle Époque. Then she went made Y tu mamá también and we discovered how wrong we were.

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterWimsey

@ PoliVamp. She brights when a mexican is around. XD

I remember how excited she was when won the best actress Ariel for this role. She and Sergi Lopez are terrific in this.

October 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCésar Gaytán

Wimsey -- She was amazing in Amantes and that was way before Y tu mamá también.

Barely noticeable for foreign ears, but she speaks Spanish with a Bable accent, the language of the area. Great work. Too bad she had to compete for every single award with Penélope Cruz in Volver.

October 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

In my book, in a fair world, she would have FOUR Oscars (there were 4 times that I thought she gave the best female performance in a category)

1991 Amates, Supporting Actress
1997 La Buena Estrella, Lead Actress
2002 Y tu mamá también, Lead Actress
2006 Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), Supporting Actress

... also probably some nom as Supporting Actress for "Blancanieves" could have been in order... it is odd, that she never worked with Almodóvar

October 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJesus

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