It's Spain, 1944 just at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother to live in a rural military outpost commanded by her new step-father, a captain in Franco's army. Post-war Fascist repression is at its height and Captain Vidal (Sergi López) is particularly brutal and sadistic in his fervour to root out the remaining communist fighters still holding out in the surrounding mountains.
Ofelia, like most other girls her age, still believes in magic and romance and she brings along her collection of fairy tale books even though her mother thinks she should put such childish pastimes behind her. However, on the way there, her mother takes unwell and the car has to stop for a while and Ofelia wanders off a little way off the roadside where she discovers an old carved stone and a very unusual dragonfly, which follows them on their way.
When they eventually arrive at the outpost, an old abandoned mill, she quickly realizes that her new father has no interest in her at all and only cares that his new son will be born by his side, regardless of his wife's ill health. With her mother confined to bed, Ofelia discovers an old maze in the gardens beside the mill and can't resist exploring it. It's a brooding place of winding paths and at it's centre is a well with steps leading down into the darkness. At the bottom of the steps Ofelia meets a faun who tells her that she is a fairy princess and, in order for her to return to her people, she must first pass three trials…
With beautiful cinematography by Guillermo Navarro (Hellboy, Jackie Brown, Desperado) and a hauntingly dark musical score from Javier Navarrete, we're led into the world of faery where fauns, sprites and monsters roam on just the other side of the wall and into the very dark world of pain and torture that was the Spanish Civil War. We very quickly discover that Captain Vidal is a sadistic sociopath who has no love for his wife or daughter and delights in beating and torturing anyone who stands in his way. We also learn that the rebels in the hills are being aided by the locals, in particular the doctor and the Captain's own housekeeper, who's brother is one of them. Small wonder that a little girl dropped into this dark and dismal world would seek refuge in fairy tales and imaginary creatures.
The performances by the main players are excellent - Ivana Baquero plays the child Ofelia to perfection and Sergi López is brilliant as the baddie of the piece. There's good support from Ariadna Gil as Ofelia's mother and Maribel Verdú as Mercedes the housekeeper. Visual effects are also very good and, although the fantasy scenes aren't perhaps as frequent as expected, they are beautifully realized.
If you like fantasy movies, then this is really worth seeing on the big screen but don't delay too long or the subtitle Philistines will have had it consigned to specialist theatres before long. With a string of awards and nominations, this is well recommended and I'll definitely be buying the DVD when it hits the streets.
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror, War
My Rating: 9/10