Hell switches places with Earth in the Pyrenees in 1944. The outer story of Guillermo del Toro's overwhelming Pan's Labyrinth is that Franco's fascist army is clearing out a band of guerrillas, with all of the usual brutality of an armed force fighting an insurgency. The inner story inverts the myth of Proserpine in the form of a daydreaming 10-year-old named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who may be the reincarnation of the princess of the underworld, but who is currently helpless in the realm of her wicked stepfather.
The stepfather, the citified Capt. Vidal (Sergi López), arrives to meet his troops deep in the forest with his ailing, pregnant wife, Carmen (Ariadna Gil). Vidal is an emblem of the fascism that an audience loves to hate, from his spotless pearl-gray uniform to the malevolent shine of his leather gloves and boots and del Toro sets him against expressionist shadows. His private quarters are in the top room of an old mill. Here is a fantasy of mechanical fascism, broken down in the woods. If it weren't for the ancient stone labyrinth just outside the camp that beckons Ofelia, the title could be a poetic reference to the thick groves of trees on all sides of Vidal's barracks.
Outside, Ofelia receives a visit from the demigod Pan himself (Doug Jones). He is a shambling faun, whose moonstone eyes glitter under a massive brow, carved with spirals. The creature gives Ofelia three tasks to perform before the moon is full to prove that this lost princess has not been contaminated by her life in the world of the mortals. If she succeeds, she can return to her kingdom and wander "the seven circular gardens of your palace."
First, Ofelia must slay a voracious toad whose exhalations are poisoning the roots of a tree. Second, she must retrieve a dagger from an ogre's larder. The third task may require a larger sacrifice of her humanity than Ofelia can make.
Del Toro can be electrifyingly violent, yet in Pan's Labyrinth, we sense a gentle artist who, like Goya, steels himself to look at horror. More bewitching than the marvelous bestiary del Toro releases is his color palette. Instead of the milk-blue hues of the ordinary CGI fantasy, here the woods hover in a constant lowering twilight, and here is some of the most attractive use of day-for-night photography in years.
Pan's Labyrinth is the most satisfying kind of fairy tale, featuring a conflict between the brutality of the male order and a moon-world of enchantment in which women are the warriors. Ofelia protects her ailing mother and, in turn, the brave housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) rescues Ofelia. And there are the archetypes: maiden, mother and wise woman.
Speaking of the law of threes, the artistic successes of Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Alejandro Iñárritu (Babel) and del Toro have been the source of much comment about the rise of Mexican cinema. The list goes on, though; there are more Mexican filmmakers proving the rule every day. Can we say instead, that the power of Mexican art was there all along, and now the U.S. is at last becoming wise enough to recognize it and love it?
'Pan's Labyrinth' opens Friday, Jan. 12, at select North Bay theaters.