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'Pan's Labyrinth' (*** 1/2)

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Posted: Friday, January 19, 2007 10:00 pm

I'm not usually of fan of self-important acceptance speeches in which celebrities get up on their soap box and tell us what we - the common folk - should be doing differently. However, at Monday night's Golden Globe awards, best actress winner Meryl Streep skillfully dodged the usual political rant in favor of a topic not often addressed by the Hollywood elite: the sub-par quality of films that somehow gain wide release while other, better movies are toiling in limited runs.

Among the films Streep mentioned was Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," a dark fantasy film that is roughly 10 times better than the vast majority of recycled tripe being shown at the local multiplex. Unfortunately, you would have to travel to Sacramento in order to see it, as foreign language films that don't involve martial arts are apparently not welcome in chain theaters. But believe me when I say it's worth the effort.

"Pan's Labyrinth" interweaves two plot threads. The first is a starkly realistic war story set in Spain circa 1944, which finds the young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her sick, pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) arriving at a rural military compound overseen by the girl's new "father," the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). The only comfort Ofelia finds at her new home is Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), a kindly housekeeper who is in league with a local band of resistance fighters attempting to overthrow the fascist Spanish government.

This war-time tale represents nothing new, but it's well-told, and provides plenty of suspense and well-rounded, sympathetic characters. However, where "Pan's Labyrinth" really shines is in its second story thread, in which bookish Ofelia finds herself immersed in a real-life fairy tale. While exploring the grounds of her new home Ofelia encounters a fairy that beckons her to the underground lair of Pan (Doug Jones), a faun who claims that Ofelia is the reincarnated spirit of a long-lost princess. To prove this and reclaim the throne, Ofelia must complete three tasks before the next full moon - and in grand fairy tale fashion, each is more harrowing than the last.

Like "Children of Men" (directed by another Mexican maverick, Alfonso Cuaron), "Pan's Labyrinth" creates an entirely new universe for moviegoers to explore. While the "real life" scenes are depicted with brutal realism, the fantasy sequences (which may or may not be taking place in our heroine's overactive imagination) are sumptuously gothic and, it must be said, a bit unsettling.

One key scene has Ofelia visiting the dining chamber of a silent, immobile monster credited only as Pale Man. She must retrieve an item from the room and leave as quickly as possible, making sure not to eat any of the delicious food set out on Pale Man's banquet table. Ofelia fails to heed this warning, and her weakness leads to one of the most genuinely nightmarish sequences in contemporary fantasy/horror. This set piece is just one of the many great scenes in "Pan's Labyrinth," a bold cinematic vision that, sadly, not enough people will get to see.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is currently playing in select cities, and is rated R for graphic violence, language and disturbing images.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jwallis@runbox.com.

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