'Pan's Labyrinth' blurs reality, fantasy
The villain is truly despicable and at the same time compelling.
By ROBERT W. BUTLER
KANSAS CITY STAR
Dark, disturbing and yet achingly beautiful, "Pan's Labyrinth" is destined to be regarded as a classic, an adult fantasy that all but erases the line between the real and the imaginary.
The latest from Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro is part Grimm Brothers, part grim meditation on war, politics and personal ethics. Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, it gives us a young heroine in a nightmarish situation who escapes into surreal realms.
Ofelia (the astonishing Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), are part of a military convoy winding its way through a thick forest. Their destination is the camp of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez ), a ruthless fascist commander battling anti-Franco partisans. Unfortunately, he's also Ofelia's new stepfather.
Once settled into the ancient mill that serves as Vidal's headquarters, Ofelia realizes just how precarious her situation is. The cruel Vidal cares neither for her nor her mother -- his only concern is the survival of the son he is sure his wife is carrying.
When the fragile Carmen is confined to her bed, Ofelia finds a friend and protector in the housekeeper Mercedes ("E Tu Mama Tambien's" Maribel Verd). She doesn't realize that Mercedes is actually conspiring with the Republican guerrillas to stage a devastating raid on Vidal's camp.
Against this background of brutality and intrigue, the second world of "Pan's Labyrinth" is established. Venturing into ancient druidlike ruins near the mill, Ofelia descends into a deep pit and discovers a towering horned faun (Doug Wilson) who recognizes her as the long-lost princess whose family once ruled a happy and prosperous kingdom. But to prove her royal credentials, the girl is assigned three dangerous tasks that will take her into magical realms co-existing with her violent reality.
Even as Ofelia struggles to complete the quests that will elevate her to regal status in Pan's world, chaos is breaking loose in her terrestrial existence.
Del Toro, who divides his time between Hollywood films like "Hellboy" and "Blade II" and brooding Spanish-language efforts like the excellent "Devil's Backbone," is absolutely at the top of his game here. In its supremely confidant and effortless blend of the fantastic and the grittily realistic (among his excellent collaborators are production designer Eugenio Caballero and the cinematographer Guillermo Navarro), "Pan's Labyrinth" not only compares favorably with Terry Gilliam's best work ("Brazil"), it exceeds it.
Though del Toro delivers one eye-popping visual after another, he also provides an actor's showcase. Lopez, whose screen persona can range from lovably huggable (the French "An Affair of Love") to the despicable ("Dirty Pretty Things"), is absolutely chilling as Vidal, a sort of human train wreck of ego and authority for whom the usual debate about right and wrong is meaningless. You cannot take your eyes off him.
This is one of the great film fantasies.