2006, Mexico/Spain/US, directed by Guillermo del Toro (original title: El Laberinto del Fauno)
Guillermo del Toro's strongest movie since his début, the great vampire film Cronos, Pan's Labyrinth is an absorbing mixture of brutal realism and richly developed fantasy, set in a 1944 Spain still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War. The obvious cinematic reference point here is Victor Erice's stunning 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive, where another young girl mediates the violence and loss that surround her through an intense fantasy life. However, in place of Erice's spare settings, which sometimes recall Western landscapes, del Toro develops a lush visual tapestry set in a vibrant forest glade. Whether we are inside the garrison where young Ofelia is brought by her mother, or in the other world where she spends much of her time, the colours and textures are deep and warm, with flickering flames providing an inviting contrast to the cold-blooded violence that takes place outside.
The film's action is often very brutal, and the viewer is rarely spared the details that result from the use of guns, hammers and, unforgettably, a small, sharp knife; as in all of his previous films, del Toro is adept at manipulating and discomfiting his viewer, with a particular focus on blood and mucus (familiar from both Cronos and Mimic). The director doesn't neglect the human side, either, with a group of strong actors: Ivana Baquero is exceptional as the young Ofelia, while Sergi López shows again his talent for oily menace as Ofelia's ruthless stepfather, and captain of the garrison. In its conclusion, the film suggests that adults, too, need to believe in alternative existences - the religious implication is pretty clear - in order to render bearable the fact that, in this world at least, terrible things can be done by despicable people.