[Author’s Note: Please watch the film before reading this, I don’t want to spoil it for you!]
It’s no small wonder that the artistic establishment would produce a film like Encanto in this stage of our world-myth, or that the collective consciousness would receive the film with such great enthusiasm. Divinity is working powerfully through the hands of the film’s creators, capturing the zeitgeist, the spirit of our time, while at the same time offering us gifts of profound healing and reflection. I was struck by the film’s particularly overt use of archetypal dynamics, and I thought a view from a psychoanalytic and mythological perspective would be a valuable contribution.
The title alone strikes a chord at the heart of modern people. It heralds a breakthrough of the sacred, an interruption of the life through which we struggle to find meaning, and increasingly, sanity. Yet it is the kind of film about the sacred we long to see – full of whimsy, numinosity, and healing is at its core. The collective consciousness is always producing films about the sacred realm, a reality that can be harsh as well as gentle. Unfortunately the lens through which our culture interprets the sacred is often that of horror, which a reflection on popular fantasy/sci-fi films clearly shows. With the ability to create three dimensional worlds that borders on the miraculous, it seems a waste to use these incredible tools to strike terror into viewers already fear-adled consciousness. Encanto seeks to inspire, which is the main reason its healing message has been received so earnestly.
But let’s look deeper into the psychological dynamics and symbolism within the narrative. Not surprisingly, the story speaks powerfully to the situation in the americas that has been acutely inflamed by racism posing as nationalism (a fire fueled by capitalist interests). One of the film’s most moving images is of oppressors barreling down upon fleeing refugees – an image taken straight from the media’s headlines. When seeing the protagonists of the film (the family Madrigal) chased down and their patriarch murdered, orphaning his children and widowing his wife, art transcends reality. Our redemption is the spiritual power that is bestowed upon the remaining Madrigals as a result of this unjust tragedy. The power is represented by the divine flame (“where the magic comes from”), a motif represented as the hearth in various mythologies, including Celtic, Greek and Roman.
The film is a mellifluous celebration of Latin American culture. It’s a way of life I have come to know and love, living many years in US border towns and taking extended visits into Mexico my entire life. This lifeway is characterized by preservation of the sacred through living virtuously and honoring elders and family. Viewed archetypally (particularly as a dream image), the house we inhabit represents our life. In Encanto, the house’s character Casita literally takes on a life of its own, endowed with a nurturing, supportive (and occasionally disciplinarian) sentience. All the members of the Madrigal family inhabiting this enchanted refuge (“an encanto”) have their own unique gift provided by the power of magic. The gift is a family inheritance, a blessing to their tribe (revealing their latent European ancestry, “madrigal” is from an ancient italian word meaning womb, which evolved into a musical term for a multi-voice song). The only one of the family denied this special gift is our hero, Mirabel, whose name means “wondrous beauty.”
Mirabel is the maiden aspect of the divine feminine, filled with innocence and potential. There is an unexpected twist that gives our story meaning and starts her on her archetypal hero’s journey of self-discovery and ultimately redemption for her community: at her time of initiation, Maribel receives no special gift. This is viewed as a curse upon the family, but it also captures the prevailing anxiety of our culture: we have lost our relationship with the sacred, and have therefore lost our personal power. Part of my work as an educator is teaching children individually, and as I watch them grow from mystical creatures into what our culture considers adulthood, disempowerment is one of their prevailing issues. Nothing exemplifies the loss of the sacred more than what children experience as they come to terms with the dehumanizing demands placed upon them in this culture. It is a theme that is made abundantly clear in the plight of Maribel’s sister Louisa who, despite her superhuman strength, can no longer shoulder the burdens of a fragmenting cosmos.
This same theme is woven into the narrative in the plight of other Madrigals. We discover that the physically beautiful sister Isabella (whose gift is the ability to make flowers blossom everywhere she goes) is experiencing the disintegration of her interior self by the pressures of her supposed perfection and the family’s ensuing expectations. She eventually finds relief (as an unforeseen result of her sister Maribel’s journey) by cultivating her bizarre and chaotic side, in which her flowers (which have now turned into cacti) cover her in color, making her look like a painter, the artist/rebel archetype – one of the few identities in our culture permitted to act upon their inner feelings and instincts. And we have the abuela, the grandmother and archetypal crone, the goddess in her elderly and wise form. The soul of her family is in jeopardy, the sacred flame is in danger of dying out, and she uses her cunning to engage in chicanery to try to hold her reality together to “save the miracle”, to no end. That is the destiny alone of our hero, Maribel.
The most potent character of the entire film is Bruno. The fact that his name is synonymous with the phrase “we don’t talk about Bruno” reveals his archetypal. Bruno carries the shadow for the Madrigal family, but alarmingly, he is also one of the most phenotypically white characters (followed by his neurotic sister Pepa, who is bedeviled by storm clouds over her head). I use the term “alarmingly” because as a white male of European descent, something deep inside my psyche is triggered by this archetype. I believe the creators of Encanto are instinctually trying to heal the soul of humanity, and that can’t be done without contending with the long, dark shadow that has been cast disproportionately by the privileged “whiteness” of the global north. The thing about the shadow is, within the darkness hidden from the world hides the wisdom to redeem us. It’s viscerally satisfying to see the white male character besotted with the responsibility of his own consciousness instead of hiding behind the narcissistic bravado of a plastic persona, a personality deficit fairly attributed to whiteness.
Mirabel’s quest to save her family’s power inevitably leads to Bruno – in other words, a reconciliation with the shadow. The crucial clue presents itself in the form of Bruno’s last vision before he goes into hiding. Astonishingly, it is a vision of Maribel herself presiding over the destruction of the home. Once this vision has been discovered, it quickly spreads through the consciousness of the Madrigals. Maribel must pursue Bruno into his shadowy domain between the walls of the home to engage him and find clarity around the vision. This parallels our own path to illuminating the shadow, reintegrating the hidden or repressed parts of the self. The encanto is ultimately saved through engaging in a ritualized visionary experience with Bruno, who begins to evoke a more positive identity as that of an eccentric healer. Redemption shows itself in the form of a butterfly, symbolic of transformation and rebirth. Jung would certainly sanction this course of therapy: our hero enters the numinous archetypal realm to achieve individuation, which synchronistically results in a reintegration and revivification of the entire community.
Encanto offers a teaching tailored for our time. It’s a humane and compassionate voice that reminds us not to hold ourselves to the unrealistic expectations of modern society, to be authentic and not suppress our pain, and that there is power in our imperfection. But our psychic survival depends on our courage to expose our shadows, to own up to our brokenness, to endure the little deaths along the road of life and allow ourselves to be reborn again:
Ay, mariposas, no se aguanten más
Hay que crecer aparte y volver
Hacia adelante seguirás
Ya son milagros, rompiendo crisálidas
Hay que volar, hay que encontrar
Su propio futuro
[Oh butterflies, don’t hold each other any longer
You must grow apart and return
That’s the way forward
You are already miracles, breaking chrysalises
You must fly and find your own future.]
–Dos Oruguitas (Two Caterpillars) , Lin-Manuel Miranda
The near perfect and uncommonly danceable Encanto (my partner stood up in the theater and began dancing to “Bruno,” unable to retrain herself) is not without one major flaw that is the bane of so many mainstream movies that attempt to typify non-western culture. There is a shameless proselytizing of individualism in the motif of the young person breaking from tradition. Ironically, this is one of the overarching issues that I believe has landed humanity in such chaos. From Little Mermaid to Moana, the “old ways” are painted as oppressive, restrictive, and an impediment to fulfilling desires and gratifications (once again, serving capitalist interests). Such fulfillment has led to a planet in decline, with everyone taking what they want with no thought for others or of the future. But Encanto does so much to inspire family solidarity and authentic psychological inquiry, I hate to criticize it. All things under the sun cast a shadow, and if this brilliant reflection of our time teaches us one thing, it’s that by making a sincere inventory of our collective darkness we can find the healing that will bring back our enchantment.