No movie in 2006 was more impressive than Guillermo del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth, a morality tale that turns the tables on the Latin genre of magic realism. Instead of interweaving magic into a narrative of reality, del Toro pictorializes a legend in which reality intrudes—a little princess is spirited from her fantasy world and rebirths into Franco’s Fascist Spain. All so extraordinary a natural blend that, excepting the presence of the hideous-looking creatures Pan and the 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 surprisingly, the movie is heavy into Catholicism: del Toro, who was born in Guadalajara in 1964, was raised by a deeply religious grandmother who demanded he perform penitence for his various sins—for example, placing metal bottle caps in his shoes so that the soles of his feet were bloodied while walking to school. She also tried to perform exorcisms on him, attempting to rid him of his love of fantasy and his drawings of monsters imagined or remembered from the movies. To a degree, one of them shows up in the Pale Man: 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 is evident in Pan, a two-legged ram looking like Jack Palance with curly antlers, curly cue eyes, and a sinisterly soothing voice. In the pivotal role of the princess, Ivana Basquero as Ofelia is close to prodigious, balancing Little Red Hiding Hood and Alice in Wonderland with the fears of Franco’s horrors. And she’s so good doing the stupid Eve-eating-the-forbidden-fruit bit that she angers us. (While watching her throughout you think of the possibilities she’d bring to Anne Frank.) The comparisons of Sergí López’s Captain Vidal to Ralph Fiennes’ Goeth in Schindlers List are somewhat justified—they both love the efficiency of revolvers, they’re both masters of torture. But López’s “fussy dandy” is more like an aged uptight Luke Wilson. In the typical fantasy, the princess would be the heroine; in Pans Labyrinth, the surprise is that while she has the tools at hand to remedy the real life dilemmas, she barely has the wherewithal to ensure anything other than her escape from reality. Working as Vidal’s chief housekeeper who becomes the heroine, Maribel Verdú has the look of inner strength, like Irene Papas and Anne Revere, yet she’s more than just a little too transparent; she is del Toro’s one weakness here as director.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.