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A girl, a maze, and a monster

In masterful 'Labyrinth,' history comes alive

I spent most of "Pan's Labyrinth" reassembling the pieces of my shattered impression of Guillermo del Toro. While his earlier movies had whiffs of soul, they looked like classic horror pictures -- the vampire flicks "Cronos" and "Blade II" -- or overcooked science fiction, like 1996's "Mimic," with Mira Sorvino and its giant subway-dwelling bugs. Then there was "Hellboy" with its whooshing action sequences and winking wit. The Mexican director was a cult taste with a cultish following -- he's won the fealty of the pimpled, thickly bespectacled, and clannishly obsessed. As it turns out the geeks were on to something.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is a transcendent work of art. Del Toro's gratifying surreal and fantastical instincts now have an unstinting moral eye on the world. Saying a filmmaker has matured suggests that he's forgone what made him so entertaining in the first place. But in evolving with this voluptuously realized film, with its omnipresent dangers, Del Toro has simply refined the deftness of his storytelling. A beautiful film about ugliness, "Pan's Labyrinth" is still pure del Toro (the insects and slime, for instance, are still here), but he gazes through a grim historical lens.

Set in 1944, after the Spanish Civil War, just as Franco begins his terrible domination, this fractured fairy tale introduces us to a girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero ) whose father died in the Spanish Civil War and whose sickly mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil ), has recently wed the nasty fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi López ).

Mother and daughter have moved to the captain's military outpost, an old mill, whose wooded outskirts crawl with guerrillas and within which is hidden a rocky labyrinth. One evening, following a dragonfly, Ofelia makes her way inside the maze, down a spiraling stairway, and into the netherworld of a hissy faun (Doug Jones ). He convinces her that she's an escaped princess come home and, through a magical book filled with calligraphy and Rorschach blots, begins assigning her physical challenges -- sneaking inside trees or hoisting herself into her dingy bedroom through the floor.

The book, whose designs were sketched by del Toro , becomes a kind of instruction manual whose demands keep her busy above ground and below. It turns out that the faun is as forbidding as her stepfather. Some girls get a secret garden, Narnia, Wonderland, or Oz. Poor Ofelia has to settle for her increasingly difficult straits.

Del Toro masterfully intercuts Ofelia's quests with scenes of the guerrillas who hide in the hills and launch random attacks. The men survive with the surreptitious dedication of the captain's physician (Alex Angulo ) and his formidable housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú , the beauty from "Y Tu Mama Tambien," who's fantastic here). At the mill and in the hills, grisliness persists. In so many ways, "Pan 's Labyrinth" is about pain, real human pain.

Del Toro inhabits almost exactly the same territory as 2001's anti fascist ghost story, "The Devil's Backbone": before the fall of the Catalans in the civil war. A political sensibility suffused the supernaturalism, but the film, ultimately, was about the predominance of phantasms, the vague specters of history. The new movie's clarity of vision is far more robust, making similar ghosts flesh and blood.

History is as alive and unquenchable as the faun and the captain , with their affronts on a girl who must learn to act independent ly of the state -- both the dream state and the fascist state. The brilliance of López's performance is how he conflates the two, giving us a monster with a seductively human face, but never too human.

Del Toro's film belongs on a double bill with Víctor Erice's "Spirit of the Beehive," another, more elliptical film set in Franco - era Spain and focused on the active imaginary lives of innocents. "Pan 's Labyrinth" questions the limits of fantasy, how complete devotion to allegory can be blinding. What will fans of "Blade II" and "Hellboy" make of this about - face?

Del Toro is still interested in the physical surrealism of David Cronenberg and the social critiques of Luis Buñuel. But unlike, say, fellow fantasist Tim Burton, whose movies can prize the saccharine while peddling bogus pathos, Del Toro has made a film rich in both visual audacity and moral consequence. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a feat of unique cinematic alchemy: A master of horror-movie schlock has made a stunningmagic-realist masterpiece.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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