The Spanish Civil War
by Antony Beevor
(Aka, "El Laberinto del Fauno")
There are more than one kinds of escapes from reality and the imagination of a child is a much trod pathway to the safer world of fantasy than a real one that is a virtual nightmare. For Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) her widowed mother Carmen's (Ariadna Gil) decision to improve their circumstances by marrying a military commander as the Spanish Civil War was unwinding in 1944 was just that, a nightmare. Appropriately, she came armed with an escape mechanism.
Almost immediately she sees Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez) -- the man mom wants her to call father -- in his spotless uniform and phony expressions of concern, she visualizes an escape from the unfeeling brutality she senses. She sees an oversize grasshopper-like creature as a fairy interested in her destiny. Vidal's housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), empathetic to the little girl's needs, establishes her friendliness by leading Ofelia to the labyrinth at the heart of the mill's abandoned garden.
Finding herself, here, in a rich fantasy world that transports her away from the unhappiness of her step-father's repression, Ofelia immerses herself into a magical kingdom where she meets a powerful Faun (Doug Jones) who tasks her to perform 3 tests in order to realize her true calling as the enchanted princess of this idealized world. She is also given a book to consult whose pages are blank until images draw themselves as further guides to the next steps in her destiny.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Vidal is trying to clear the forests of the marauding remnants of the rebel army while unaware that all the civilian members of his household are allied with it.
By juxtaposing chilling military brutality with the idealism and imagery of a fairy tale, director Guillermo del Toro integrates the two, creating a credible tension between both. The result is a well tempered dramatic whole that borrows from available sources -- from "Alice In Wonderland" to the CGI realism of "Pirates of the Caribbean" half-alive monsters. But the mix and context are entirely his own drawing together of man's real world horror and a child's fantastical fable. His effort to sustain the mix within the logic of its context is aided admirably with his fine, well selected cast and enough budget to do it seamlessly. Mood and intensity are heightened admirably by Javier Navarrete's netherworld score.
~~ Jules Brenner