Rarely have fairy tales and fascism been combined in a motion picture with such moving, mind-blowing results. Um, now that I think about it, have fairy tales and fascism ever been combined in a motion picture?
Very little about director Guillermo del Toro's latest is less than brilliantly original. Pan's Labyrinth isn't just the best foreign language film of the past year; it may well be the most accomplished film of any kind produced in 2006.
As the story opens, the year is 1944, the Spanish Civil War has all but drawn to a close, and Francisco Franco is in power. The last traces of the Republican resistance have headed for the hills - literally. It is at the base of these hills where the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) presides over a military outpost responsible for exterminating the last of the rebel forces.
And it is into this brutal and precarious environment that a mother brings her dreamy, young daughter. Her father has died. Her mother has married Vidal, whose baby she is carrying. From the moment the two arrive at the base, it is painfully clear the captain is interested only in the unborn child. He wants a male heir and has zero patience for a dreamy young girl.
Ivana Baquero imbues Ofelia with an endearing blend of innocence, moxie and psychosis. While her stepfather is busy torturing prisoners and capping enemy sympathizers, she escapes into a magical underground kingdom that's only slightly less treacherous than the world she's left behind. There she encounters a horned, hoofed faun who welcomes her as the realm's long-lost princess. If she successfully completes three tasks before the next full moon, the marvelous creature explains, she can return to her immortal state and regain her rightful throne.
The filmmaker shifts between events unfolding topside and Ofelia's adventures underground, where, at one point, she's pitted against a monstrous figure called Pale Man - easily the most indelible horror creation in a decade, perhaps two. It's a testament to del Toro's talent as a director and a screenwriter that the action in one world never upstages events in the other. Pale Man may have eyeballs in his withered palms, but Vidal makes every bit as riveting a monster. He's a creepier version of the Nazi commandant Ralph Fiennes played in Schindler's List, as improbable as that may sound.
A more violent, richly imagined and heartbreaking fairy tale would be all but impossible to conceive. This is two hours of acting, storytelling and special effects of extraordinary passion and near perfection, a triumphant fulfillment of the promise the filmmaker demonstrated in earlier work, including Chronos (1995) and The Devil's Backbone (2001). None of its characters lives happily ever after. Even hummingbird-sized fairies aren't exempt from gory decapitation. And yet, the story has an uplifting moral: In the right hands, cinema can prove as transcendent as we all believed it could once upon a time.