A magical tale of fantasy as an escape from evil

For Ofelia, an imaginative 10-year-old in Fascist Spain, it is better to live in her dreams than die on her knees.

Rather than endure the brutality of her wicked stepfather, a captain serving Franco's harsh dictatorship, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) retreats to a magical realm where she learns to resist any who would intimidate her.

Her netherworld is a carnival mirror image of the political horrors she witnesses. In this split-level narrative, as Captain Vidal (Sergi López) snuffs out the underground resistance from his garrison near an abandoned mill, Ofelia repairs to her subterranean realm where menacing creatures threaten. Fantasy is the sword with which this supremely poised innocent battles - and transcends - the forces of evil.

Pan's Labyrinth, the extraordinary film from Mexican fabulist Guillermo del Toro, is as poetic as a ballad and as primal as a myth - imagine The Chronicles of Narnia painted by a tag team of Goya and Dalí. Del Toro is a conjurer who employs realism to intensify his fantasy - and vice versa. This is the breakthrough work of one of world cinema's most visionary artists.

The film opens near the woods in northern Spain in 1944. The images introduce us to the real Ofelia as the narration tells of a mythical princess who has fled her kingdom, abandoning a father who longs for her return.

Ofelia bridges these separate realities.

There is her terrestrial responsibility as a child who has lost her father and accompanies her pregnant mother to her stepfather's military outpost. And there is her subterranean, supernatural adventure as the fatherless innocent whose quest is to resurrect the dead parent. Baquero's Ofelia bravely navigates both worlds, armed by an accommodating dragonfly and an enchanted book. She looks perfectly capable of catching a falling star, as the John Donne poem goes, and getting with child a mandrake root. A mandrake, which very much resembles an embryo, plays a significant role in the story.

Those familiar with the work of del Toro, perhaps best known as the Hellboy horrormeister, will not be disappointed with his tableau of gothic ruins where gargoyles spring to life as bizarre fauns and frogs. Because del Toro weds his grotesques to a story of enchantment - they are not there to scare you, but to test Ofelia's mettle - those with low thresholds for gore won't have to avert their eyes too often.

More unsettling than the film's imagery is its sound. Things don't just go bump in the night, but gurgle and rustle and thud in ways that make your heart crack.

Ofelia encounters many fearsome creatures on her quest. A vaguely lecherous faun. A loathsome toad big as Jabba the Hut of Star Wars fame swimming in his own slime. A mummy man with a featureless face and eyes hidden in the palms of his hands. (The production design by Eugenio Caballero is as evocative and pungent as that in Jean Cocteau's classic Beauty and the Beast.)

But none of these ragged bogeymen is as intimidating or imposing as her stepfather, immaculate in his gabardine uniform and leather gloves, dedicated to "cleansing" Spain of the remaining Republicans opposing Franco's regime. His contempt for stepdaughter and spouse is palpable; Vidal cares only for the child swelling in his wife's belly. And when he sees that Ofelia is his rival for this infant - the hope of future Spain - he treats her like an insurgent. Ofelia's one ally is Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), the housekeeper who, like the young girl, lives a double life.

The key to the narrative is . . . a key. In Vidal's garrison, it unlocks the warehouse where life-sustaining food and medicine are stored. In Ofelia's underground caverns, it unlocks the corridors of power. The motif of the key ties the two narrative strands into a knot, placing Ofelia at the literal and metaphorical crossroads. She holds the key to whether Spain will fall to Fascism or rise with Republicanism.

The film's resolution is as ambiguous and rich as its narrative. I leave it to others to debate whether Pan's Labyrinth ends on a note of triumph or tragedy - or both.

What I do know for certain is that del Toro has created a timeless story. Finally, Pan's Labyrinth suggests that fairy-tale violence helps the vulnerable process and overcome real-life conflicts and that real-life violence permanently smashes the soul and the heart. By the end, I rode the emotional waves of elation and elegy, and thought once again of Donne, of "Death Be Not Proud," of the poet's hope that death shall be no more. "Death, thou shalt die."


Pan's Labyrinth **** (out of four stars)

Produced by Bertha Navarro, Alfonso Cuaron, Frida Torresblanco and Alvaro Augustin, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, photography by Guillermo Navarro, music by Javier Navarette. Distributed by Picturehouse. In Spanish with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.

Ofelia. . . Ivana Baquero

Vidal. . . Sergi López

Mercedes. . . Maribel Verdú

Doctor. . . Alex Angulo

Pale Man. . . Doug Jones

Parent's guide: R (fairy-tale grotesquerie, war violence and torture)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.