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Pan’s Labyrinth:: (Film Review)

The pen isn’t really mightier than the sword, of course. But smart dictators suppress freedom of thought and try to wipe out the foes with dangerous ideas, not just foes with weapons. Francisco Franco was a smart dictator indeed, and “Pan’s Labyrinth” depicts the chilling climate that settled over Spain during the 1930s civil war that left him in charge for four decades.

Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro couches his allegory about fascism in a tale as cruelly fascinating as any from the Brothers Grimm. He’s made a film about a girl who retreats into a fantasy world when life becomes too hellish to endure. But in this case, she speaks for all Spaniards who found themselves sinking into a long nightmare.

“Labyrinth” starts innocently enough, with Ofelia (12-year-old Ivana Baquero) accompanying her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to the country. They ride in a comfortable car toward the home of the stepfather who will provide long-sought financial security, and Ofelia meets a fairy whose presence hints at magical adventures.

The stepdad turns out to be repressive Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), whose home is the headquarters of an attempt to wipe out rebel troops. When Carmen falls ill, Ofelia has only two friends: Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), the housekeeper sympathetic to the rebels, and the menacing goat-man of the title (Doug Jones). He tells Ofelia she can save her mother by performing a series of dangerous tasks, but can she trust this enigmatic creature?

Del Toro has split time evenly between horror/action features in English (“Mimic,” “Blade II,” “Hellboy”) and more thoughtful, eerie pictures in his native Spanish (“Cronos,” “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Labyrinth”). The latter are less accessible to American audiences but always more complex, and “Labyrinth” is the peak of this output.

The human horror is intimate, with Vidal menacing his wife or preparing to interrogate a prisoner through torture; the nastiest scene shows a man shoving a bottle into Vidal’s face, which the captain sews up before our eyes.

When Ofelia enters the fantasy world, she encounters the kinds of creatures one might have met in a Greek myth, including a blind cannibal with detachable eyes that fit in the palms of his hands. (Jones has made a career out of nonverbal, inhuman roles – remember Abe Sapien in “Hellboy”? – and he’s oh-so-creepy in this small part.)

Del Toro expertly balances the household life, Ofelia’s interaction with the faun and Vidal’s pursuit of the rebels. Though characters aren’t complicated – they rarely are in horror allegories – Ofelia’s dilemma keeps us riveted. Baquero’s fragility and innocence contrasts beautifully with Lopez’s smiling sadism and Verdu’s unflinching bravery.

We don’t find out until the last scene how reality and fantasy intersect, when the meaning of the first shot of the film gets driven home. How many movies have you seen with a payoff like that?