The Mexican-born writer-director Guillermo del Toro is themost accomplished fantasist in contemporary cinema, a master creator ofimages, atmosphere and mood who uses his visionary's gifts to do whatothers cannot: make imaginary worlds seem more real than reality itself.
With "Pan's Labyrinth," Del Toro has made his most accomplished film todate, a dark and disturbing fairy tale for adults that's been thoughtout to the nth degree and resonates with the irresistible inevitabilityof a timeless myth.
This is a film that's set in two parallel worlds, the cold, brutal oneof Spain in 1944, just after the triumph of Francisco Franco's fascism,and an equally disturbing alternative universe that a serious10-year-old girl named Ofelia stumbles upon behind an old mill.
This world may be a kind of refuge from the savagery shaking Spain, butdon't mistake it for a bright and sunlit place. Ofelia's found universeis dangerous in the extreme, a pitiless arena where mistakes haveserious consequences and trusting anyone, even those who claim to beyour friends, is fraught with peril.
What makes "Pan's Labyrinth" so remarkable is Del Toro's equal facilitywith both of these worlds. Starting from his debut feature, 1995'smarvelous "Chronos," he's always had a gift for the fantastical, but as2001's spooky "The Devil's Backbone" demonstrated, he also has anability, shared with Peter Jackson but not many others, to deal withequal ease with the psychology of human relationships.
In "Pan's Labyrinth," Del Toro has perhaps his strongest cast ever,beginning with the protean Sergi Lopez, most familiar as the hotelmanager in Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," and including MaribelVerdu, almost unrecognizable (she was the heartthrob of "Y Tu MamaTambien") and young Ivana Baquero as Ofelia.
Del Toro also has the advantage of finally getting a crack at a projectthat's been on his mind for years. "It's very dear to my heart," thedirector said after the film debuted at Cannes. "It's the movie I'vedone that I like the most, that most resembles the things I thought Iwould do when I began directing."
All that time considering "Pan's Labyrinth" has meant that Del Toro hasbeen able to both think up and sketch out in the notebooks he alwayscarries with him the myriad specific details that make Ofelia's world socompellingly real. There is a sense with this film that every lastspecific has been thoroughly thought through, that the filmmaker is soat one with the material that he is actually living it with hischaracters.
Before we properly meet those characters, a voice-over tells us of theexistence of a timeless underground realm "where there are neither liesnor pain," a world that once had a princess. She left it to experiencelife on earth and had her memory blotted out by the sun, but her father,the king of the underground, has always held out hope that her soulwould return, even if in another body.
Ofelia, we find out immediately, is a girl who is passionate about fairytales. She and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are making an arduousautomobile journey to a remote part of Spain where her mother's newhusband, Captain Vidal, is engaged in exterminating the last gasps ofRepublican resistance to Franco.
Played with a kind of terrifying panache by Lopez, the captain is both afairy tale villain and an all too real psychopath who kills innocentswithout compunction or remorse. It's also safe to say that no one hasever taken more visible pleasure in wearing black leather gloves thanthis disturbing sadist.
Even though Ofelia finds an ally in the captain's somber housekeeperMercedes (Verdu), it is no wonder the girl is eager to wander off andflee the house. Which is how she comes across an ancient labyrinthleading to a wide circular staircase that opens onto that undergroundworld.
Ofelia's first steps waken an ancient and completely marvelous creature,a faun who might be the god Pan himself but who prefers to say only"I've had so many names ... old ones that only the wind and the treescan pronounce."
Old though he is, the faun immediately recognizes the girl as thelong-awaited Princess Moanna, returned to take her rightful place in theunderground kingdom. Before she can do that, however, the faun insists,like any good fairy tale enabler, that Ofelia must perform three tasksbefore the moon is full "to make sure her essence has remained intact."
Those tasks, each more daunting than the last, bring the girl intocontact with a series of strange and wondrous creatures, from amonstrous toad with a huge tongue to a terrifying monster called PaleMan, an echo of Goya's child-devouring Saturn, whose eyes are to befound in the palms of his hands. (Mime Doug Jones, a Del Toro regular,is the actor underneath both the faun and the Pale Man makeup, and thework he does is irreplaceable.)
Between these creatures and what happens above ground with Vidal's armyand the resistance, "Pan's Labyrinth" has its share of quite violent andpotentially disturbing moments. Yet because the violence is used not fortitillation but to create a world we can be fearful about, because thefilm lives up to its tagline that "Innocence has a power evil cannotresist," we see it all without wishing we were somewhere else.
"Pan's" stories of what's happening underground and aboveground subtlyreinforce each other, but the film refuses to say what exists and whatdoes not. It not only leaves us free to determine how real Ofelia'sworld is, it trusts us to make the right decision.