THE Mexican-born writer-director Guillermo del Toro is the most accomplished fantasist in contemporary cinema, a master creator of images, atmosphere and mood who uses his visionary's gifts to do what others cannot: make imaginary worlds seem more real than reality itself.
With "Pan's Labyrinth," Del Toro has made his most accomplished film to date, a dark and disturbing fairy tale for adults that's been thought out to the nth degree and resonates with the irresistible inevitability of a timeless myth.
This is a film that's set in two parallel worlds, the cold, brutal one of Spain in 1944, just after the triumph of Francisco Franco's fascism, and an equally disturbing alternative universe that a serious 10-year-old girl named Ofelia stumbles upon behind an old mill.
This world may be a kind of refuge from the savagery shaking Spain, but don't mistake it for a bright and sunlit place. Ofelia's found universe is dangerous in the extreme, a pitiless arena where mistakes have serious consequences and trusting anyone, even those who claim to be your friends, is fraught with peril.
What makes "Pan's Labyrinth" so remarkable is Del Toro's equal facility with both of these worlds. Starting from his debut feature, 1995's marvelous "Chronos," he's always had a gift for the fantastical, but as 2001's spooky "The Devil's Backbone" demonstrated, he also has an ability, shared with Peter Jackson but not many others, to deal with equal ease with the psychology of human relationships.
In "Pan's Labyrinth," Del Toro has perhaps his strongest cast ever, beginning with the protean Sergi Lopez, most familiar as the hotel manager in Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," and including Maribel Verdu, almost unrecognizable (she was the heartthrob of "Y Tu Mama Tambien") and young Ivana Baquero as Ofelia.
Del Toro also has the advantage of finally getting a crack at a project that's been on his mind for years. "It's very dear to my heart," the director said after the film debuted at Cannes. "It's the movie I've done that I like the most, that most resembles the things I thought I would do when I began directing."
All that time considering "Pan's Labyrinth" has meant that Del Toro has been able to both think up and sketch out in the notebooks he always carries with him the myriad specific details that make Ofelia's world so compellingly real. There is a sense with this film that every last specific has been thoroughly thought through, that the filmmaker is so at one with the material that he is actually living it with his characters.
Before we properly meet those characters, a voice-over tells us of the existence of a timeless underground realm "where there are neither lies nor pain," a world that once had a princess. She left it to experience life on Earth and had her memory blotted out by the sun, but her father, the king of the underground, has always held out hope that her soul would return, even if in another body.
Ofelia, we find out immediately, is a girl who is passionate about fairy tales. She and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are making an arduous automobile journey to a remote part of Spain where her mother's new husband, Captain Vidal, is engaged in exterminating the last gasps of Republican resistance to Franco.
Played with a kind of terrifying panache by Lopez, the captain is both a fairy tale villain and an all too real psychopath who kills innocents without compunction or remorse. It's also safe to say that no one has ever taken more visible pleasure in wearing black leather gloves than this disturbing sadist.
Even though Ofelia finds an ally in the captain's somber housekeeper Mercedes (Verdu), it is no wonder the girl is eager to wander off and flee the house. Which is how she comes across an ancient labyrinth leading to a wide circular staircase that opens onto that underground world.
Ofelia's first steps waken an ancient and completely marvelous creature, a faun who might be the god Pan himself but who prefers to say only "I've had so many names ... old ones that only the wind and the trees can pronounce."
Old though he is, the faun immediately recognizes the girl as the long-awaited Princess Moanna, returned to take her rightful place in the underground kingdom. Before she can do that, however, the faun insists, like any good fairy tale enabler, that Ofelia must perform three tasks before the moon is full "to make sure her essence has remained intact."
Those tasks, each more daunting than the last, bring the girl into contact with a series of strange and wondrous creatures, from a monstrous toad with a huge tongue to a terrifying monster called Pale Man, an echo of Goya's child-devouring Saturn, whose eyes are to be found in the palms of his hands. (Mime Doug Jones, a Del Toro regular, is the actor underneath both the faun and the Pale Man makeup, and the work he does is irreplaceable.)
Between these creatures and what happens above ground with Vidal's army and the resistance, "Pan's Labyrinth" has its share of quite violent and potentially disturbing moments. Yet because the violence is used not for titillation but to create a world we can be fearful about, because the film lives up to its tagline that "Innocence has a power evil cannot resist," we see it all without wishing we were somewhere else.
"Pan's" stories of what's happening underground and aboveground subtly reinforce each other, but the film refuses to say what exists and what does not. It not only leaves us free to determine how real Ofelia's world is, it trusts us to make the right decision.
"Pan's Labyrinth." MPAA rating: R for graphic violence and some language. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. In selected theaters.