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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This year has been a good one for three Mexican movies whose directors happen to be close friends. First there was the film "Babel," followed by "The Children of Men." Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan says the third movie, "Pan's Labyrinth," might be the best of the bunch.

KENNETH TURAN: What Guillermo del Toro has accomplished in "Pan's Labyrinth" cannot easily be put into words. That's because the Mexican-born writer/director is a master creator of images, atmosphere and mood who uses his gifts as a fantasist to make imaginary worlds seem realer than reality itself.

With "Pan's Labyrinth," del Toro has made his most accomplished film to date - a dark and disturbing fairytale for adults that's been thought out to the nth degree and resonates with the inevitability of a timeless myth.

This is a film that's set in two parallel worlds - the cold, brutal one of Spain in 1944, just after the triumph of Francisco Franco's fascism, and an equally disturbing alternative universe that a serious 10-year-old girl named Ofelia stumbles upon an old mill.

(Soundbite of movie, "Pan's Labyrinth")

TURAN: This world may be a kind of refuge from the savagery shaking Spain, but don't mistake it for a bright and sunlit place. Ofelia's found universe is a pitiless arena where mistakes have consequences and trusting anyone, even those who claim to be your friends, is fraught with peril.

Del Toro moves with ease between these two worlds and he also has the advantage of finally getting a crack at a project that's been on his mind for years. All that time has meant that the director has been able to think up the myriad details that make Ofelia's world so compellingly real. There is a sense with this film that every last specific has been so thought out that the filmmaker is actually living the story with his characters.

"Pan's Labyrinth" does have its share of quite violent and potentially disturbing moments. But because the violence is not used for titillation but to create a world we can be fearful about, we can see it all without wishing we were somewhere else.

The film's depictions of what's happening underground and above ground suddenly reinforce each other, but "Pan's Labyrinth" refuses to say what exists and what does not. It not only leaves us free to determine how real Ofelia's world is, it trusts us to make the right decision.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan is film critic for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

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