Devil's Backbone, The (2001)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-01-18 06:29

Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David MuŮoz
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega and Federico Luppi

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

ďWhat 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."

Even though Guillermo del Toroís third feature film opens by pondering the nature of ghosts and their existence, it really feels like an incidental ghost story for much of its run-time. Thereís a literal ghost roaming about, but itís the figurative specters--the scars of war, the undetonated bomb, the failed revolution--that really hang over the film, which is too complex to be reduced to a simple ghost story. Instead, itís a story thatís about ghosts, and, by the time itís ended, you realize that itís been answering its own opening question by telling you multiple ghost tales, including one in the making.

Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is a Spanish Civil War refugee who finds himself in an orphanage that houses a ghost story thatís already been written. Upon arrival, heís assigned the bed that was previously occupied by Santi, a boy who disappeared without a trace after an air raid that dropped a bomb right onto the orphanage. It didnít explode, but the boys are convinced itís alive and has a heartbeat if you listen closely enough. The orphanage also seems to be haunted by a constant sighing, and Carlos is intent on discovering the identity of ďthe one who sighsĒ when he isnít clashing with Jaime (ÕŮigo Garcťs), an older boy guarding his own secrets.

Del Toro quietly observes these boys and their guardians--a kindly doctor (Frederico Luppi), a one-legged administrator (Marisa Paredes), and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a former orphan who never left the orphanage and lords over it as a disciplinarian. He has plans to move to a farm with his fiancťe (Irene Visedo), but he is a clear case of arrested development, a man full of resentment for the fate that befell him thanks to the war that ravaged his country. On one level (and there are many levels to The Devilís Backbone), the film examines the cycle of large-scale violence and its effect on children, a clear Del Toro staple that heíd examine again in Panís Labyrinth. Here, we see children of the revolution (specifically, the leftist revolutionaries) mired in their own complications--interestingly enough, the fascist ďenemyĒ is largely unseen save for one chilling scene.

The awe and terror of children is another Del Toro trope; in Cronos, the innocence of its protagonist rendered its horrors in an almost tender, heart-breaking fashion. Here, though, Del Toro is exploring the monster under the bed, at least initially. The sequences where Carlos creeps through the crumbling orphanageís hallways and its dank basement are the stuff of old-fashioned haunted house movies, as the moonlit mis-en-scene feels like the darkened opposite to the burnished, sun-drenched daylight scenes. However, Del Toro mostly withholds jarring bumps in the night--this isnít that type of ghost story. Instead, Del Toro is more interested in repositioning and reconfiguring the dynamics of this story, as the audienceís perception of events and characters shifts as Carlos uncovers the mystery at its center. The ghost is eventually revealed to be a macabre manifestation of the true horrors guiding the film: greed, frustration, and war.

When it emerges properly, it does so in lyrical fashion and as an act of karmic retribution. Above all, The Devilís Backbone may be a film about supernatural justice in a world where none really existed. The film is full of people with missing pieces--the schoolmarm is missing a leg, the doctor is impotent, and Jacinto is missing a soul. They attempt to fill each others gaps, both spiritually and physically, but their burden is too much, their situation a metaphorical bomb thatís waiting to explode. It does not go undetonated, and the fallout is both savage and tragic. As the film closes, it makes it returns to the opening monologue, and we realize that ghosts are all of these things: a tragedy, an instant of pain, an emotion suspended in time. But theyíre also voices of the voiceless and the haunting memories they left behind; they linger as reminders of those that history would rather forget.

The Devilís Backbone is a startlingly ambitious film that wraps politics around an austere, gothic fable to relate a stunning allegory thatís impressively mounted by Del Toro and frequent collaborator Guillermo Navarro. This film is among the directorís most grounded and earthy, but a faint surreality exists, perhaps in an attempt to reclaim history from its ugly reality. The story told here isnít much less ugly, but it is perhaps a bit more comforting, which is something you canít say very often about ghost stories. Indeed, film mimics its title thatís derived from the stillborn fetus from which Luppiís doctor procures a rum that the locals believe to be a panacea. The fetus represents ďthe devilís backbone,í something that was never quite meant to be but still serves as a source of hope. Santi is likewise is a devilís backbone in this sense, as is the film itself: this is history not as it was, but perhaps as it should have been, guided by the watchful, vengeful eyes of protective ghosts.

The doctor himself scoffs at the localsí claims, but not before he takes a swig of his own rum. A seemingly contradictory act, it actually speaks to the desperation and the longing for hope in a world that consistently dashes such hopes to the piercing rhythm of firing squad executions and backstabbing. Luppi is perhaps the filmís heart, its quiet, assured presence whose shaken faith upon witnessing said execution is bone-chilling. Itís a testament to Del Toroís mastery that the biggest jolts in his ghost story come here, during the filmís most real moment; after all, itís not the unreal thatís scary here. The Devilís Backbone might be Del Toroís most accomplished work to date, and it represents one of the earliest post-millennial horror triumphs. Columbia Tri-Star has released the film twice on DVD, with both releases are marginally different at best; the 2004 special edition would be the way to go, as it features the better video transfer to compliment the already strong 5.1 surround track. This release also features deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, storyboard comparisons, art galleries, a directorís notebook, and a commentary with Del Toro (whereas the original release featured both the director and Navarro). Del Toro is among cinemaís most distinctive voices, and this is a finely crafted ghost story thatís both gorgeous and grotesque in a way that few horror films are. Essential!

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