Captain Of Life?
The name "Vidal" comes from the root for "life." But the Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth is anything but life-affirming…or even particularly life-loving. After all, this is a dude who kills and tortures people for a—heh, life pun—living.
Basically, Vidal's not someone you want to cross…because you'll probably end up deader than a doornail. Check it out:
VIDAL: You're wrong about that. I choose to be here because I want my son to be born in a new, clean Spain. Because these people have the idea that we're all alike, but there's a difference. The war is over and we won. And if we need to kill each one of those motherf***ers to agree on it, then we'll kill them all. And that's that. We're all here by choice. [He raises his glass.]
Vidal isn't one of those conflicted captains, torn by the twisted ethics of war. He wants to get his hands dirty. He loves blood n' guts. He charges up the hill after the rebels when he certainly doesn't need to be on the front line. And we're pretty sure he could get someone else to do his torturing for him.
But this isn't just a job; Vidal seems to get his kicks from it. He shouts at Serrano about dying in battle as being the only decent way to go out and he really likes showing of his tools to the poor rebel he's about to "get to know." ("Get to know" is Vidal-speak for "get to torture.")
Vidal will even kill two innocent men just to make a point to his soldiers. When a father and son are taken in by the soldiers during a rabbit hunting expedition and accused of being rebels, Vidal beats the son near to death by smashing his face in with a bottle. He then shoots the father, finishes the son…and pulls out the rabbits that he seems to have known were there the whole time.
So, what's the point? Vidal is a powerful man, and he knows it. And it's not just in the overtly violent scenes, either; it's in the details: the way he grips Ofelia's hand so suddenly and firmly, the camera angles which make him tower over the doctor when they first talk, his seat at the head of the dinner.
Vidal is always in control.
An Obsessive Legacy
But Vidal himself is just a segment in the line of everlasting Vidals that have come before him and go after him. We don't know if they were all as brutally violent as our Vidal, but it's not a stretch to think that it might be a bit hereditary—it's easy to see how Vidal's father's actions have impacted him.
We learn from a dinner guest about how Vidal's father, dying in battle, smashed his watch on a rock so his son would know his exact time of death. This has the effect of stopping time in a way—Vidal's father's fate, his life as a solider, and his obsession with keeping memories frozen throughout the generations are all deeply imbedded in Vidal.
Vidal's father was apparently a very well respected general, so we know Vidal has some big shoes to fill…which might account from some of his extremity. (And also his obsessive shoe-polishing.) We see this same obsessive nature in how he grooms himself. Classy music plays in the background as we get a montage of shaving and boot shining.
Vidal wants to abuse his power…but he also wants to look snazzy while he does it.
If Vidal has an ounce of the milk of human kindness, it shows itself in the fact that cares a lot about his son.
But let's actually reduce that amount of human kindness milk (does that mean there's human kindness cheese as well?) to about half an ounce, because Vidal's less about his son as a human being…and more about his son as an idea, or as an extension of himself through time.
Check out this telling exchange:
FERREIRO: Her temperature is down.
VIDAL: But she still has a fever?
FERREIRO: Yes, but it's a good sign. Her body is responding.
VIDAL: Listen to me: if you have to choose, save the baby. That boy will bear my name and my father's name too.
Yeah, that makes it pretty clear that Vidal's just concerned with the family name getting passed on down the line.
But concerned he is: he goes so far as to shoot and kill his own stepdaughter because she tried to steal him away. To Vidal, his son's life is much more important than his own. He wants a legacy and a reputation that will live on, just like his own father's lives on through him.
Looking at the broken watch, he ask his son be told his time of death, but when Mercedes denies him any legacy through his son whatsoever, this is worse than death itself for Vidal.