Captivating Worlds

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) pays a visit to a child-eating ogre (Doug Jones) who's no less ominous than the forces of totalitarianism around her in 1940s Spain.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) pays a visit to a child-eating ogre (Doug Jones) who's no less ominous than the forces of totalitarianism around her in 1940s Spain. (By Teresa Isasi -- Picturehouse)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

Every now and then, a movie comes along that is so extraordinary -- so breathtaking in its artistic ambition, so technically accomplished, so morally expansive, so fully realized -- that it defies the usual critical blather. Just see it, you want to tell readers. See it, and celebrate that rare occasion when a director has the audacity to commit cinema.

Such is the case with "Pan's Labyrinth," Guillermo Del Toro's visionary parable that would mark the zenith of the 42-year-old filmmaker's career were he not still so young. A visually dazzling fairy tale set in Franco-era Spain, this meditation on the costs and limits of totalitarianism combines the Gothic fantasy that has been Del Toro's signature -- from his debut, "Cronos," through comic book adaptations such as "Blade II" and "Hellboy" -- with the themes and setting of his 2001 historical drama, "The Devil's Backbone."

With "Pan's Labyrinth" Del Toro seems to have created his manifesto, a tour de force of cautionary zeal, humanism and magic. At this writing, "Pan's Labyrinth" is the best-reviewed film of 2006 listed on the movie review Web site, and for a reason: It's just that great.

But enough critical blather. It's 1944, the fascists have won Spain's brutal civil war, and a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is traveling with her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to live with her new stepfather, a Nationalist army captain named Vidal (Sergi Lopez). When Ofelia arrives at her new home -- an abandoned mill on the edge of a forest that still shelters Republican guerrillas -- it becomes clear that she matters little to Vidal, who is more concerned that the baby her mother is carrying turn out to be the son he has always coveted.

Ofelia increasingly takes refuge from the brutality of her surroundings in a richly imagined fantasy life, one that eventually leads her to a faun living in the titular labyrinth on Vidal's property. Meanwhile, Vidal's housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), is covertly helping the rebels in the woods, and befriends the young girl who, in creating an increasingly elaborate and highly charged private world, isn't retreating from reality as much as resisting it.

Like all great fairy tales, "Pan's Labyrinth" features a girl on the cusp of womanhood who embarks on a quest-journey; when she meets the faun -- a fantastical creature played by Doug Jones with the help of prosthetics, puppeteers and computer animation -- he charges her with completing three tasks in order to prove that she's worthy of the supernatural company she's keeping. By far the most memorable of the faun's challenges is Ofelia's visit to a hideous ogre, at a sumptuous banquet where the girl is not allowed to eat. The ogre -- also portrayed by Jones -- is a grotesque, brilliantly conceived creation, a deliquescent wraith who sees with eyes set in the palms of his hands. The effect, when he raises those limbs to gaze at the girl, is every bit as shocking and haunting as anything by Hieronymus Bosch.

With its painterly palette (Del Toro once again works with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro) and densely detailed production design, "Pan's Labyrinth" evokes great works in any number of artistic mediums, from the paintings of Goya and Balthus to the films of Luis Bunuel and Dario Argento. (Del Toro seems to be quoting Bunuel, not to mention himself, in an excruciating scene where Vidal stitches up his own sliced face.) The director has always been a special-effects wizard -- he started out as a makeup technician -- but here he outstrips his own prodigious achievements, creating a menagerie of creatures and settings that are by turns poetic, terrifying and amusing, but all unforgettable.

It's in its sophisticated politics that "Pan's Labyrinth" qualifies as Del Toro's most mature work; he depicts fascism not just as a failed political or philosophical system (taking well-aimed swipes at clerical complicity along the way), but primarily as the failure of imagination. As Ofelia makes her quiet and courageous way through the faun's to-do list -- while the sentient world around her falls apart -- her own imagination, her willingness to surrender to her own creative subconscious, becomes the means not just of escape but of survival.

True to its title, "Pan's Labyrinth" pans effortlessly between the natural world, Ofelia's fantasies and Vidal's rustic redoubt, investing each with a share of enchantment and menace. But although Del Toro's visual imagery, whether beguiling or brutal, is always dazzling, the heart of the movie lies in the extraordinary relationship between Ofelia and her otherworldly muse. Seductive, prickly, demanding and mercurial, the faun is an ambiguous creature, his motives never neatly billboarded; Del Toro deliberately keeps filmgoers off balance when it comes to this complicated satyr, who goes from puckish to sinister in the blink of a milky eye. As the audience's guide through this often confounding world, Ofelia deserves a place alongside Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy Gale as one of the great young heroines of classic myth, and the 12-year-old Baquero inhabits her with rare solemnity, equanimity and moral strength.

There are so many indelible images here: the transformation of an insect into a fairy; an enormous toad who drips with sticky, icky authenticity; a wounded fighter taking one last look at his leg. Seamlessly moving from myth to reality, Del Toro creates a world that is of a piece with life, as it is lived and in dreams. And, unlike so many recent films that have trafficked in fantasy, from Middle Earth to Narnia, "Pan's Labyrinth" creates a visual lexicon that is at once familiar and brand new, drenched in the realities of milk, honey and blood but plunging into our deep, even perverse, anxieties for its darkest imagery.

Most heroically, Del Toro subverts the traditional happy ending audiences have come to expect from their fairy tales. Instead, he gives the fearless, steadfast Ofelia her due until the bitter end. By the time she faces her last challenge in the shattering conclusion of "Pan's Labyrinth," audiences will care deeply about a girl who's come to represent not just political dissent but life itself. Del Toro never flinches, and the final sequence, while both healing and tragic, is finally a triumph of uncompromising vision.

Pan's Labyrinth (112 minutes, in Spanish with subtitles, at area theaters) is rated R for graphic violence and some profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company