starring Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú
written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
by Walter Chaw Brutal and ignoble, the antithesis of romantic, the violence in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth slaps metal against flesh like the flat of a hand against a steel table. It's the only element of the picture that isn't lush, that isn't laden with the burnished archetype of Catholic superstition as it exists in eternal suspension with the pagan mythologies it cannibalized. By itself, this seems a metaphor for the pain and the magic of how fable turns the inevitability of coming-of-age into ritual. An early scene where hero girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero)--a storyteller equal parts experientially innocent and allegorically savvy, making her the manifestation of del Toro's ideal avatar--tells her prenatal brother a story about a rose that blooms nightly on a mountain of thorns touches in one ineffably graceful movement all the picture's themes of immortality, aspiration, isolation, and the promise of escape held, sadistically, just out of reach. There's something of the myth of Tantalus in Ofelia's tale, as much as there is of Lewis Carroll's Alice and the sagas of parental absence by the Brothers Grimm, which surface in the premise of a young girl traveling, as the film opens, with her pregnant mother into the war-torn Spanish countryside during Franco's rule to join her wicked stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi López) at his remote outpost. Ofelia will be reminded repeatedly throughout the film that there's no such thing as justice or innocence left in the world, and that the best intentions are crushed by cynicism and rage. The question left as the picture closes has to do with whether Ofelia's taken the lesson to heart, to say nothing of del Toro--or us.