Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil By Norman Wilner

in 18th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Norman Wilner

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno, 2006) is the work of writer-director Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican fabulist who’s made his name in North America with the top-flight genre works Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), but who really shines when telling smaller, more intimate stories like Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001).

This is the picture he’s been building towards all along, a dark and deeply personal spin on Alice in Wonderland that develops its own remarkable power as it proceeds. Confident and muscular — and resolute in its understanding that, sometimes, the creatures in the shadows are very, very real — this is one of the year’s best films.

Set during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth follows a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who arrives with her uncomfortably pregnant mother (Ariadne Gil) at a remote Fascist outpost to live with her mother’s new husband, the military officer Vidal (Sergi López) — a sadistic and brutal man bent on flushing out the resistance forces lurking in the hills above.

Ofelia soon realizes Vidal has no time for her, and just a fraction of affection for her mother; his real focus is the child Carmen is carrying, which he is convinced will be a boy to carry on his family name. Ofelia is just baggage, and though she finds a friend in Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), a local woman who works at the outpost — and uses her position to assist the resistance, at considerable risk — she spends most of her time alone.

From this wicked stepfather, and the larger sense of chaos generated by life at a compound under constant threat from partisan attack, Ofelia flees into a supernatural underworld populated by fairies and fauns, who tell her she’s the lost heir to a magnificent kingdom and suggest a series of tests to reclaim her birthright.

Of course, it’s not nearly as simple as that: Ofelia’s actions in the underworld have repercussions in the real world, pushing subtly — and then rather overtly — against Vidal’s grandiose plans to crush the resistance and secure his legacy with Carmen’s child.

The best fantasies — the ones that endure — are stories set in fully imagined worlds, with rules their creator understands instinctively and never violates. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia was built on a bedrock of pagan magic and Christian tropes, and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth turned on an internal order that had to be obeyed by all who wandered within. Pan’s Labyrinth may never attain the scarily faithful following of those literary epics — it’s only a movie, after all — but it’s as obsessively constructed and lovingly rendered as either, with del Toro crafting an underworld that’s as complete and convincing as the “real” world above. And it’s to the script’s credit that it never really matters whether Ofelia’s fairyland truly exists; she believes it’s real while she’s there, and so do we.

Eventually, the parallels between the two worlds blur and disappear; the partisans mount a final assault on Vidal’s fortress — which, as the film progresses, seems to grow smaller and more fragile, like a child’s fort — and Ofelia sees her world shrink convulsively, as well. As friends and allies fall away, this brave little girl is forced to become a fierce warrior to protect herself and her newborn brother; does it matter whether she’s delusional if she’s still doing the right thing?

Pan’s Labyrinth is being positioned in the movie marketplace as a kind of adult fairy tale, but that does it a disservice: A more apt description would be that it’s a movie for grown-ups who remember what it was like to be a child. I am proud, and honored, to have been a part of the FIPRESCI jury that named it the Best Official Foreign Language Film of 2006.