Sunday, February 3, 2008

#30: The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001)

Pan's Labyrinth got the most attention of Guillermo del Toro's Spanish-language films, and it mostly deserved all that attention, but The Devil's Backbone is quieter, subtler, and almost as good. Working with similar subject matter (the Spanish Civil War, children in peril, an amoral villain who shares the same living space as the children in peril, a surprisingly serious treatment of the fact that sometimes children die), del Toro swaps the later film's dark fairy tale for a ghost story.
The Devil's Backbone takes place during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, and a group of leftist holdouts run an orphanage under the guise of a Catholic school. An undetonated bomb sticks halfway out of the cement it smashed through, providing a beautiful and menacing visual centerpiece for the film's action. The dud bomb provides a constant reminder of the encroaching danger facing the dwindling Republican forces and the orphaned children. Cronos's Federico Luppi and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes play the school's headmaster and mistress. Luppi pines after the prosthetic-legged Paredes, but his impotence causes him to keep his romantic feelings to himself. Meanwhile, a tutor drops Fernando Tielve at the orphanage, letting on that the boy's family has been killed, unbeknownst to the boy. He's given the bed of Santi, an orphan killed in mysterious circumstances, and he is soon visited by a ghost whose motives are unclear.

That fairly uninspired plot synopsis on my part has failed to convey the film's poetic beauty, narrative satisfaction, and occasional dark humor. That rare thing, a humanist horror film, The Devil's Backbone reveals the full-fledged gifts of del Toro as a visual storyteller. A slow-paced but skillfully told story that favors atmosphere and character over heavy-handed plot mechanics, The Devil's Backbone showcases del Toro's ability for getting weighty, expressive performances from children without any cutesy-poo bullshit. He's no slouch at framing shots for maximum visual impact, either. He has Sergio Leone's eye for landscapes, and mashes together Cronenberg's interest in body horror with Bunuel's blackly humorous surreality. His treatment of Paredes's detachable prosthetic leg provides the best example of the Cronenberg/Bunuel sensibility blend. Of course, he's a

more accessible director than these three, and adheres to a much more classical, straight-forward approach to storytelling and interest in traditional genre conventions (fairy tales, ghost stories, horror, action, melodrama). I don't see this as a drawback, however, and the surreal visual touches (the undetonated bomb, the deformed fetuses floating in jars of rum in Luppi's office, the Japanese-horror-inspired ghost's cracked-doll forehead that dribbles a gravity-defying upward trickle of blood like bubbles in an aquarium) provide the bulk of the narrative's interest. The film's politics are thin and simplified, but avoid a heavy-handedness that could have overpowered the other elements. Who goes to fiction films to learn about the Spanish Civil War anyway? Goofballs, that's who. The Devil's Backbone is ultimately a finely detailed ghost story about universal subjects like vengeance, good and evil, death, and love. And that's enough.

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