|The Devil's Backbone
2001 - R - 106 Mins.
|Director: Guillermo del Toro
|Producer: Pedro Almodóvar, Rosa Bosch, Guillermo del Toro
|Written By: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz
|Starring: Eduardo Noriega,
Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve,
|Review by: David Rolston
With Hellboy about to hit theaters, it's a great time to revisit Director Guillermo del Toro’s 2001 Spanish/Mexican co-production “The Devil’s Backbone”.
Would you be the Ghost of Spanish Past?
This stylish and thought provoking film opens with a riveting sequence that depicts the dropping of a bomb and its descent through stormy skies towards a distant town. Next we see two boys, one lying on the ground gravely injured with a head wound. A body descends into the darkness through murky waters. The second boy, now alone, squats beside an indoor pool. And throughout this montage, a solemn voice asks a question “What is a ghost?” and then proceeds to offer a series of explanations.
“The Devil’s Backbone” is an accomplished, literate allegorical tale set near the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The story takes place within the walls of a boys boarding school and orphanage run by the aging widow Carmen and Professor Casares, two leftists who attempt to keep the school operating despite the worsening toll of Civil War. We come to find that the narrator at the beginning of the film is Professor Casares, and we are hearing a retelling of what has already happened to the inhabitants of the School. Del Toro constructs a narrative jigsaw puzzle, which is slowly pieced together as the plot unfolds.
“The Devil’s Backbone” is heavy on atmosphere thanks to some eerily organic special effects work, and the vibrant earthy tones employed by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro who also lensed Del Toro’s breakout film “Cronos”. Navarro has worked steadily in both Hollywood and Europe but never to greater effect than here. Despite the visual elements, this is not by any means a horror film, and people expecting one will be disappointed.
Most of the film is seen through the eyes of Carlos, a recently orphaned boy who is abandoned at the school by a man he knows as his Tutor, but who in fact was a comrade of his father’s in the leftist militia. The Tutor, himself wounded, doesn’t have the heart to tell the boy the truth. These are desperate times for the largely volunteer Republican army, and he needs to be rid of his young charge. Having told Carlos to wait for him in the courtyard, he drops the boy’s suitcase, departs the gates and speeds away in his car without so much as a word. Carlos chases the car down the driveway, falling as his suitcase breaks and spills out his possessions in one of many poignant moments elegantly depicted in the film.
Soon thereafter, Carlos crosses the school bully Jaime, one of the two boys at the start of the film. It appears Jaime may have had something to do with the disappearance of another orphan Santi, and he immediately begins to menace Carlos. It seems that the Headmistress has seen fit to put Carlos in the bed next to Santi’s, and it doesn’t take long before Carlos is seeing the spectral figure of a boy in the reflection of windows, and shadows behind the screens separating the beds. The other boys are not surprised, as they all seem to be familiar with “the one who sighs.” It seems however, that this apparition wants something in particular from Carlos.
The film deftly introduces the other main characters of the film, the kindly cook Conchita and her boyfriend Jacinto who performs maintenance on the decaying campus buildings. The relationships between the adults who run the school are explored, while simultaneously Carlos investigates the mystery of Santi’s disappearance. Del Toro maintains a sense of foreboding throughout, as Carmen and Caseres begin to reconcile themselves with the probability that the facists will overrun the town, and that their connections with the leftists puts them and the boys in the school in extreme jeopardy.
I suspect that “The Devil’s Backbone” succeeds or fails depending on one’s taste for films heavy on plot detail, characterization and dialogue. Del Toro has constructed a celluloid onion, which depending on the layer you choose to examine is either ghost story, mystery, suspense, psychological drama, history, or political manifesto. There are many who would argue that the ghosts of the American Civil War of the 1860’s still haunt portions of the country and attitudes of much of its citizenry to this day. If that is even remotely true, then it is not hard to understand how a civil war some seventy years later would still haunt Spanish life in a profound if perhaps unacknowledged manner. I suspect an audience well versed and intellectually and emotionally attached to the ideals that tore Spain apart at the seams in the 1930's will be much more appreciative of The Devil's backbone, than those who are ignorant of Spanish history. The motivations and actions of the characters are meant to humanize the cultural and philosophical conflict which precipitated the Spanish Civil War and allow the film to comment on them. It’s a brainy high wire act that doesn’t quite succeed.
The construction and ambition of the film, while admirable, weighs it down, and at times overwhelms the stylish visual storytelling giving way to a verbose stageplay. The adults in the orphanage tend to give unnatural speeches, to underline the points Del Toro and his co-authors want to make. The adults are not so much characters as they are archetypal representations of the opposing forces and ideals which culminated in the war. At times, the film seems to be at odds with its narrative conceit and the power and momentum it has earned in the first third dissipates. It's as if del Toro loses faith in the audience and their ability to understand a more subtle approach. Would anyone remember George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” if the characters had not been animals? In choosing to stage the film during the very time period it is meant to comment upon, the amount of artifice and staginess in The Devil’s Backbone is much less forgivable than it might have been if the superficial storyline did a better job of obscuring the subject matter.
Despite these flaws, The Devil’s Backbone is more interesting than the majority of the capital “A” art films it most closely resembles, and should generate conversation and debate amongst those most closely affected by the film’s subject matter, as well as among viewers who find politics and re-examination of pre World War One European history to be attractive. Even without an understanding of Spanish history, The Devil’s Backbone is a competent and at times a compelling drama from a sophisticated director who will hopefully return to this sort of material once he tires of the comic books (Hellboy) and Action horror sequels (Blade II) he has directed since The Devil’s Backbone was released.