Imagine your bad, false father as a giant toad, lazy and arrogant, that squats in the mucky depths of a dead tree, fattening on foot-long bugs. Or imagine this same monstrous father as something closer to human but faceless, hairless, sexless and naked, with dead-white skin hanging in folds. This sluggish, forked biped slumbers before the fire in a subterranean banquet hall, oblivious to the rich décor or the magnificent feast spread on the table. It wants to eat you, little girl, and comes at you when roused with eyeballs fixed in the palms of its hands. To see, for this thing, is to grab and kill.
Now think of a fully human stepfather: a fascist military officer serving in Franco’s victorious army. The gloomy lair of this Captain Vidal is an old mill, set in the woods and mountains where he has been sent to hunt a few remaining partisans. Your widowed mother has married this man–why, you can’t understand–and so you must either live under his power or else, like the partisans, find a way to rebel. But Vidal is harder to vanquish than a giant toad, harder to elude than a cannibal slug. He, too, sees only to grab and kill, but he doesn’t hunger for you. He wants to consume your mother, by pulling a baby son from her womb.
If I write that you must undergo this trial–you, rather than young Ofelia, the heroine with the rosy face and unpromising name–it’s because the magic that many films promise actually works in Pan’s Labyrinth. Beginning with the dizzyingly hypnotic opening shot–or, even before there’s an image, with the evocative sounds of the wind stirring, a lullaby sighing, a child gasping for breath–writer-director Guillermo del Toro succeeds in submerging you in Ofelia’s memory and imagination, where grown-up threats and struggles turn into fairy tales.
Gliding through the woods at night, del Toro’s camera discovers Ofelia lying on the ground, then tilts and comes closer as if it were an intelligent winged creature, curious and sympathetic. It approaches her bloodied face. Then it plunges into one of her eyes–the first of many eyes in this movie–and so into the volumes of her mind, which pulse with firelight and shadows. The interior of this child’s skull is part puppet stage and part Piranesi engraving, reverberating with a basso narrator’s fable about a princess who lived in a kingdom underground, and who ventured fatally into the world above. The camera rises on cue through a domed stair hall, toward an oculus that blazes with light. By the time a flash blanks out the screen, allowing the shot to continue (without seeming interruption) into a forest scene, the camera has you magnetized. You are going to be drawn along on all of Ofelia’s adventures–but despite appearances, you have not been drawn entirely outside her thoughts. This daylit forest, too, lies partly within the maze of the little girl’s consciousness.
Moviegoers who are just catching up with del Toro should know that this is not the first time he has told a story of the Spanish Civil War, or put a child’s thoughts at the center of his movie. He did both in a 2001 release, The Devil’s Backbone; and if you want to go even further back in his career, into his ostensibly pure genre movies, you might note that his insect-fear masterpiece, Mimic, is at heart concerned with the world of an autistic boy. In Pan’s Labyrinth, you may note the recurrence from these earlier pictures of favorite del Toro motifs: the intervention of a large, clacking insect, for example, which welcomes Ofelia to the woods and guides her through the movie, or the great importance that Captain Vidal assigns to chronology. (Not only does he devote himself obsessively to a cracked pocket watch; he dwells in a room dominated by the mill’s old wooden wheel, as if he were living inside the mechanism of an enormous timepiece.) If these deliberate recyclings are evidence in del Toro of a heightened auteurist self-regard, then I say he’s earned it. Everything he’s done to date reaches a new stage of maturity, beauty and depth of feeling in Pan’s Labyrinth.