The Devil's Backbone
review by Carrie Gorringe, 21 September 2001

26th Toronto International Film Festival

Best known for films that blend horror and fantasy, such as Cronos and Mimic, Guillermo del Toro now adds historical background to his trademark mix in The Devil's Backbone(El Espinazo del Diablo). It is 1939, the end of three years of bloody civil war in Spain, and General Franco's right-wing Nationalists are poised to defeat the left-wing Republican forces. A ten-year-old boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of a fallen Republican war hero, is left by his tutor in an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. The orphanage is run by a curt but considerate headmistress named Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and a kindly Professor Casares (Eduardo Noriega), both of whom are sympathetic to the doomed Republican cause. Despite their concern for him, and his gradual triumph over the usual schoolhouse bully, Carlos never feels completely comfortable in his new environment. First of all, there was that initial encounter with the orphanage's nasty caretaker, Jacinto (Federico Luppi), who reacts even more violently when anyone is caught looking around a particular storage room -- the one with the deep well. Second, and more inexplicable, is the presence of a ghost, one of the former occupants of the orphanage named Sante. Not long after Carlos' arrival, Sante latches onto Carlos, badgering him incessantly at night and gloomily intoning, "Many of you will die." As if that wasn't enough to keep the orphanage's occupants in an unrelenting state of terror, there's the unexploded bomb that dominates the orphanage's courtyard, still ticking away; With the orphanage left defenseless by its isolation, and the swift progression of Franco's troops, the ghost's prediction seems depressingly accurate. Nevertheless, with every step of the plot, it becomes apparent that the ghost's predictions as to who (or what) will die, the real source of danger and even the definition of death itself may be more ambiguous than first thought.

The urge to call The Devil's Backbone an allegory for the cruelties inflicted upon the innocent during the Spanish Civil War is at once appropriate, but also one that is far too facile an interpretation. Once the audience figures this out -- and does so fairly early in the proceedings -- the film appears as though it is about to unfold as a typical thriller that has had a thick layer of high-flown, if obvious, symbolism slathered over it in order to make it respectable. The consequences of allowing the historical and the narrative to act in parallel often leads to the sacrificing of history in favor of melodrama (The Hughes Bros.' execrable Ripper film, From Hell, is the latest dismal example of this all-too-common occurrence.). However, as with all films about historical events that move above the mediocre, the real entertainment should lie in watching how a filmmaker can keep both history and story firmly in control. Director/co-writer del Toro accomplishes this by taking the well-worn conclusion that historical and personal events are affected, however intentionally, through a psychological blindness that can be conscious and/or unconscious, and encases the good/evil dichotomy within it. Del Toro accomplishes this, with the assistance of cinematographer Guillermo Novarro, through the use of extreme color saturation, alternating between dark, dreary interiors and scalding bright exteriors as if in an oscillating structure. Thus, the color in this film does not follow a neat symbolic pattern; evil and good exist equally well alongside each other in both darkness and light. The overall look of the film is not unlike the structure of an exemplary essay or even a melody, one with a clearly discernible "pulsing" rhythm underneath the visuals (this style -- perhaps roughly described as an attempt to anthropomorphize the visual and narrative structures -- is a predominant feature of del Toro's previous features, Cronos and Mimic). The Devil's Backbone is a remarkable example of how a filmmaker can make the seemingly insurmountable task of translating historical circumstances into a film in which true and fictional horror coincide so cleanly appear easy.
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Directed by:
Guillermo del Toro

Marisa Paredes
Eduardo Noriega
Federico Luppi
Fernando Tielve
Íñigo Garcés
Irene Visedo
Francisco Maestre
José Manuel Lorenzo
Junio Valverde

Written by:
Guillermo del Toro
Antonio Trashorras
David Muñoz

R - Restricted
Under 17 require
parent or adult




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