Fri, Apr 27, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Hell on earth, and a child's paradise below

‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ Guillermo del Toro’s visually inventive fantasy about fascist Spain, is a bold juxtaposition of political fable and a fairy tale

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

In real life, as in fantasy worlds, there are demons and beautiful princesses.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF GROUP POWER

Set in a dark Spanish forest in a very dark time — 1944, when Spain was still in the early stages of the fascist nightmare from which the rest of Europe was painfully starting to awaken — Pan's Labyrinth is a political fable in the guise of a fairy tale. Or maybe it's the other way around. Does the moral structure of the children's story — with its clearly marked poles of good and evil, its narrative of dispossession and vindication — illuminate the nature of authoritarian rule? Or does the movie reveal fascism as a terrible fairy tale brought to life?

The brilliance of Pan's Labyrinth is that its current of imaginative energy runs both ways. If this is magic realism, it is also the work of a real magician. The director, Guillermo del Toro, unapologetically and unpretentiously swears allegiance to a pop-fantasy tradition that encompasses comic books, science fiction and horror movies, but fan-boy pastiche is the last thing on his mind. He is also a thoroughgoing cinephile, steeped in classical technique and film history.

This Mexican-born filmmaker's English-language, Hollywood genre movies — Blade 2 (2002), Hellboy (2004) and the ill-starred but interesting Mimic (1997) — have a strangeness and intensity of feeling that sets them apart from others of their kind. In his recent Spanish-language films, The Devil's Backbone (2001) and this new one, he uses the feverish inventiveness of a vulnerable child's imagination as the basis for his own utterly original, seamlessly effective exploration of power, corruption and resistance.

Pan's Labyrinth is his finest achievement so far and a film that already, less than a year after it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival, has the feel of something permanent. Like his friend and colleague Alfonso Cuaron, whose made the astonishing Children of Men, Del Toro is helping to make the boundary separating pop from art, always suspect, seem utterly obsolete.

Film Note

Pan's Labyrinth

Directed By: Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Sergi Lopez (Vidal), Maribel Verdu (Mercedes), Ivana Baquero (Ofelia), Ariadna Gil (Carmen), Alex Angulo (Doctor) And Doug Jones (Pale Man)

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Taiwan Release: Today

Language: In Spanish With Mandarin And English Subtitles


Pan's Labyrinth is a swift and accessible entertainment, blunt in its power and exquisite in its effects. A child could grasp its moral insights (though it is not a film I'd recommend for most children), while all but the most cynical of adults are likely to find themselves troubled to the point of heartbreak by its dark, rich and emphatic emotions.

The heroine is a girl named Ofelia, played by the uncannily talented Ivana Baquero, who was 11 when the film was made. Ofelia is the kind of child who eagerly reads stories about fairies, princesses and magic lands, longing to believe that what she reads is real. Del Toro obliges her wish by conjuring, just beyond the field of vision of the adults in Ofelia's life, a grotesque, enchanted netherworld governed by the sometimes harsh rules of folk magic.

That realm, in which Ofelia is thought to be a long-lost princess, may exist only in her imagination. Or maybe not: its ambiguous status is crucial to the film's coherence. Like the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Del Toro is less interested in debunking or explaining away the existence of magic than in surveying the natural history of enchantment.

The forest around the old mill where Ofelia and her mother come to live is full of signs and portents: old carved stones and half-buried, crumbling structures that attest to a pre-modern, pre-Christian body of lore and belief. In much of the West that ancient magic survives in the form of bedtime stories and superstitions, and these in turn, as Del Toro evokes them, lead back through the maze of human psychology into the profound mysteries of nature.

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