Pan's Labyrinth trips the dark fantastic. It marks Guillermo del Toro as a moviemaking fabulist with imagination, emotion and the ability to reflect life in a haunted-funhouse mirror.
Set in 1944, five years after Generalissimo Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War, it tells two simple, parallel stories. In the world of "reality," a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), goes with her very pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to the north of Spain; there, her stepfather, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez), intends to squash a stubborn pocket of resistance. But in a garden labyrinth next to military headquarters, without much warning and without any fuss, Ofelia enters a fairy-tale kingdom that will name her its princess if she fulfills three tasks before the next full moon.
There's nothing simple about the way del Toro follows these plot lines to the end. With a surgical saw instead of a hatchet, del Toro takes apart patriarchy and opportunistic religion as well as fascism. The film's physical violence is volatile and swift, and more upsetting the more matter-of-fact it becomes. It reflects the emotional violence that breaks out everywhere.
Ofelia refuses to call Vidal her father. He has compelled Carmen to travel at a perilous late stage of pregnancy, so desperate is he to see his heir. Vidal expects everyone to roll over for him, like the local priest, who believes God doesn't care what happens to the rebel fighters' bodies because he has already saved their souls. Yet Vidal welcomes spies or rebel sympathizers right into his headquarters, including his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu). He'd never expect insubordination from Mercedes because she is only a woman.
Ofelia's flights into her parallel universe take "the uses of enchantment" to heart-stopping new depths - or, rather, heights within depths. The supernatural here is mostly subterranean, with its nearest portal in that garden labyrinth. In its maze, Ofelia discovers that fantasy-made-real is more frightening than anything in her storybooks. But she can test her instincts and her inner strength with a bold freedom denied her in the surface world. Her guide is Pan (Doug Jones), a 7-foot faun made of earth and roots and shrubbery, with doe ears and goat legs and ram's horns, and labyrinthine lines etched into his forehead. He's goad as well as guide, and also a game-player and trickster. After he sends Ofelia to confront a monstrous toad living inside (and destroying) a giant fig tree, and an eyeless man immobilized at the head of a banquet table, Ofelia learns she can't simply follow orders, even when they come from Pan.
The movie's title could be "In Dreams Begin Responsibility." Ofelia's adoration of her mother and her yearning for the innocent, uncomplicated love they once shared catalyzes a confrontation with Vidal that also becomes a moment of truth for her trust of Pan. Del Toro elegantly threads the strands of life during wartime with a life-or-death brand of escapism into a design that's part parabola, part spider's web. Only when you see the design whole can you tell how inevitably the two worlds collide - and how crucial Ofelia has become to survival.
The movie is a visual marvel. It summons the melancholy glow usually set off by beautiful, old volumes of fable and adventure, in which the excitement and the glamour of risk and poetic sacrifice are rendered in vibrant, idiosyncratic illustrations. There's something miraculously right yet unpredictable about del Toro's choices, such as the way the fairies start out as stick insects before morphing into svelte green flying humanoids.
The depth of the imagery goes beyond special effects. The cunning control of design and color creates a tenebrous visual undertow that pulls Franco's Spain and Pan's labyrinth together. The compositions and the details come from del Toro's intuitive view of life as a series of coiling traps that must be sprung. Vidal's men, chasing their enemy on horseback through the woods, always appear to forge grimly uphill; their shootout with the rebels occurs in a circle of death.
There's a psychological component to Capitan Vidal that adds another turn of the screw. He knows his own weakness but hides it (he's one of the few believable liars in all popular cinema); he aims to be a one-man triumph of the will. He even seems able to will his forthcoming baby into being a boy. Lopez is an extraordinary actor; he creates a character that isn't just steely but always seems caught in the process of steeling himself for duty, turning himself into a myth.
Gil's tragically compliant Carmen and Verdu's haunting Mercedes match Lopez's villainous Vidal. But Baquero's Ofelia gloriously outmatches him. Her beautiful, valiant spirit irradiates her features and makes the audience catch its collective breath. She's no delicate flower and no mere hothouse bloom; she has the kind of pre-adult sensitivity that brings us very close to her.
We need her to survive, in one world or the other. We feel that's the only way to preserve some precious remnant of ourselves.
>>>Pan's Labyrinth (Picturehouse) Starring Ivana Baquero and Doug Jones (left), Ariadna Gil, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Rated R. Time 112 minutes.