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War story A girl's fantasies get her through turbulent times

Suddenly, it seems, the most interesting young directors in the world -- by far -- come from Mexico. Specifically, I'm talking about Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Children of Men"), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel," "Amores Perros," "21 Grams") and, now, Guillermo Del Toro, whose movie "Pan's Labyrinth" opens today.

Here is a film that so desperately wants to be great that it almost succeeds. At the very least, it resembles no other World War II film that you will easily recall. (Certainly no other recent one.)

It's about a forlorn little Spanish girl whose beloved pregnant mother has just married the fascist commandant who rules the local countryside. He is an authentic military monster who presents one side to the nonmilitary world (aristocratic, efficient, dutiful, brisk but just) and another side entirely to his men (brutal, peremptory, murderous, only tangentially human).

Pregnant mother and daughter, then, both come under his "protection," while anti-Fascist rebels seethe all around them. Unfortunately, the mother's late-term pregnancy becomes complicated enough to require continuous bed rest.

So the little girl -- whose interior life is full of fairy tale creatures and doings -- retreats into a fantasy world where insects are full of wisdom and talk and magic is the only healer. Her worlds flow in and out of one another.

The household around her is nothing but complex. The housekeeper is secretly collaborating with the anti-fascist rebels in the surrounding forest.

War and fairy tale alternate -- and always with exceptional deftness from Del Toro. The little girl's new father must be appeased. And monstrous imaginary toads must be disarmed by being filled with stones.

There is a labyrinth that requires her to do three tasks to save her failing mother. It is, among other things, replete with a flesh-eating minotaur whose eyes are in his hands.

At first, the little girl is, in most ways, like most other kids. She's especially good at getting really filthy just before company is coming.

By the time the tale is over, though, she becomes extraordinary indeed, a kind of fairy tale heroine of her own.

The special effects in the film are unsparing in the yuck department. And when it's violent, it is unstinting there, too.

It's as if Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" had suddenly met Luis Bunuel down the rabbit hole while the Spanish Civil War raged in the forest above them.

Monsters and protectors are virtually indistinguishable from one each other but all too distinguishable from exploding armaments and bullets.

The ending of the film is preposterous, mysterious and deeply beautiful all at the same time, as if the filmmaker were telling us that even in the middle of the worst we do to each other, our capacity to tell stories redeems us.

Believe or not. It's the individual's choice. The film, though, is quite special.




3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil and Ivana Baquero

DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

RATING: R for violence, hallucination and a good deal of yuck.

THE LOWDOWN: A little girl who loves fairy tales fantasizes her way out of the Spanish Civil War that surrounds her. In Spanish with subtitles.

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