No movie in 2006 was more impressive than Guillermo del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth, a morality tale turning the tables on the Latin genre of magic realism. Eschewing the interweaving of magic into a narrative of reality, del Toro pictorializes a legend in which reality is the intruder—a little princess is spirited from her fantasy world and rebirths into Franco’s fascist Spain. All so extraordinary a blend, excepting the presences of the hideous-looking Pan and Pale Man, we aren’t sure if we can separate fairy tale from real life. For example, the medicinal use of the mandrake root to ease a difficult pregnancy. Not surprising, the movie is heavy into Catholicism: del Toro, born in Guadalajara in 1964, was raised by a deeply religious grandmother who demanded he pay for various sins by performing penitence, such as placing metal bottle caps in his shoes so the soles of his feet were bloodied while walking to school. She also tried to perform exorcisms on him, attempting to rid his love of fantasy and his drawings of monsters imagined or remembered from the movies. To a degree, one of the freaks shows up in the Pale Man as the Creature from the Black Lagoon cannibalizing tiny helpless victims straight out of Goya’s Saturn. Having studied makeup and effects from The Exorcist master Dick Smith, del Toro formed his own company—in jest named Necropia—and worked as a makeup supervisor for 10 years and his expertise in the grotesque is manifest in Pan, a two-legged ram looking like Jack Palance with curly antlers, curly cue eyes, and a sinisterly soothing voice. In a typical fantasy, the princess would be the heroine; here the kicker is she has the tools at hand to remedy real life dilemmas but she barely has the wherewithal to ensure anything other than her escape from reality, making Ivana Basquero as Ofelia close to prodigiously injecting Little Red Hiding Hood and Alice in Wonderland into Franco’s horrors. And she’s so good doing the stupid Eve-eating-the-forbidden-fruit bit she angers us. Some nettlesome weakness in del Toro: if comparisons of Sergí López’s Captain Vidal to Ralph Fiennes’ Goeth in Schindlers List are somewhat justified—they both love the efficiency of revolvers, both masters of torture—Fiennes’ repellency isn’t a physical disconnect to the environment, whereas López’s “fussy dandy” is more like an uptight, aged Luke Wilson. Working as Vidal’s chief housekeeper, Maribel Verdú has the look of inner strength, recalling Irene Papas and Anne Revere, yet she’s more than just a little too transparent through the lens of surrealism.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.