Devil's Backbone, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/24/05 20:44:49

"Profoundly satisfying period horror. Not to be missed."
5 stars (Awesome)

"The Devil's Backbone," directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, opens and closes with voiceover narration: "What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber." This narration, simple on its surface, ultimately resonates across the film, thematically and emotionally, its full meaning revealed only with an additional line of dialogue that closes the film.

The Devil's Backbone opens with bombs falling from the sky and the murder of a young boy. The Devil's Backbone is set in an isolated Spanish orphanage at the end of the Spanish Civil War, as Franco's fascist armies sweep aside leftist and liberal opposition to his authoritarian rule (his regime last for almost forty years). The orphanage, isolated from the closest village by a day's walk and surrounded by dry, dusty fields, becomes the central stage for conflicting desires and goals, suppressed secrets, greed, unrequited love, and the supernatural, the last metaphorically and literally realized by the presence of a troubled ghost.

Carlos (Fernando Tielve), is left at the orphanage by his caretaker and teacher. In short order, his attempt to navigate the social structure and hierarchy of the orphanage (as the new boy, he's the obvious target of some of the other orphans), and his natural curiosity leads to the discovery of the ghost's identity and the identity of his killer (a mystery that's easily solved by the audience, and therefore, carries little suspense). The other characters include the compassionate, if ineffectual headmaster, Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi, the lead in del Toro's Cronos), the headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes, a Pedro Almodovar regular), Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the amoral handyman, himself an orphan, his misguided lover, Conchita (Irene Visedo), and Jaime (Inigo Garces), the oldest boy at the orphanage.

Conflict in the narrative comes from several sources, the dangerous outside world, symbolized by the unexploded bomb in the central courtyard, an outside world where loyalties to the about-to-be-defeated Republican cause carries with it severe, often permanent punishments, and the internal world of the orphanage, among the boys and among the adults (principally between Jacinto and Dr. Casares), and, of course, the unsettling, recurring presence of the ghost, whose motivations for haunting at the orphanage are still unresolved. To Guillermo del Toro's credit, as Jacinto emerges as the principal antagonist for the boys and Dr. Casares, Jacinto is also revealed as a sympathetic character, his actions guided not just by greed for money and power, but also by self-loathing and emotional damage connected to his own abandonment as a child. At least twice, Jacinto is referred to as a "prince without a kingdom," a petty autocrat in the making.

The Devil's Backbone does have several shortcomings, however: first, a weak protagonist who inconsistently drives the narrative; at times his actions and choices place him in the center of the narrative, at other times, his actions are merely as an observer, or in deference to the actions of others (both to Dr. Casares and Jaime in a crucial third-act plot turn); second, multiple storylines that, at times, impede the main plotline, in part due to the richly drawn characters who have rich backstories that are only partially revealed by the close of the film; third, the ghost story is more subplot than plot, and as such, feels tangential, especially considering that the ghost's identity is revealed in the first scene in the film (and his murderer is easy to surmise). The subplot does, however, serve a key narrative purpose: by inserting the ghost story in the first scene, it alerts the audience to the "rules" of this particular horror/fantasy/drama story, and when a second ghost appears at the end of the film, the audience accepts his supernatural presence as within the bounds set by the premise.

That's not to say that, even with the limited screen time for the ghost storyline, The Devil's Backbone doesn't contain its share of genuinely creepy, atmospheric moments. Del Toro is adept at mining suspense and horror from the continuing confrontations with the ghost, and in one scene, subtly uses CGI to increase dread and anxiety (i.e., drops of water that hang in the air, a wound that leaks a kind of blood-smoke, defying gravity). Del Toro and his cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, are well aware of the limitations of CGI. Instead del Toro and Navarro create tension and suspense through traditional methods: lighting, editing, dramatic composition (long, dark corridors, windows, and entranceways), and camerawork. Several compositions, through doorways and windows, reminded me of John Ford's iconic image from The Searchers of John Wayne's character pausing at a threshold, a doorway facing the wilderness in the final scene. In The Devil's Backbone, as one of the characters pauses in shadow at the orphanage's ruined gate, the audience hears the opening voice-over narration again, closing the narrative circle, but this time with an additional line of dialogue that echoes with regret, grief, and loss.

Setting aside the film's minor flaws, del Toro has created a richly resonant, atmospheric film, the kind of film where, days later, visual images, story turns, and denouement, still linger in your memory. "The Devil's Backbone" proves to be one of the most satisfying films of del Toro's career, second only to "Cronos" (del Toro's career has sadly been marred by his inexplicable desire to direct enjoyable, if generic, big-budget Hollywood films, e.g., "Mimic," "Blade 2," and "Hellboy").

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