Finding The Devil's Backbone - 1/27
This past weekend’s movie was The Devil’s Backbone (El Espanza del Diablo), from Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro is making waves currently as his new picture, Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), is the odds-on favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar (it has a total of six Academy Award nominations). Satanica and I went and checked out Pan’s Labyrinth last week, so it seemed an appropriate time to go back and revisit his previous (and, for my money, the better of the two) Spanish Civil War drama.
The Devil’s Backbone centers on a 10 year old boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), son of a fallen Republican solider, who is sent to a remote orphanage as General Franco’s Nationalists move across the land in 1940’s Spain. The orphanage is run by the maternal Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and the kindly Dr. Casares (Frederico Luppi), two rebel sympathizers who have a cache of rebel gold for safekeeping, and provide haven for young boys orphaned by the conflict. This gold becomes the obsession of former student Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the orphanage’s groundskeeper, who plots to steal it.
Soon after his arrival at the school, Carlos hears the call of “the one who sighs”, a ghost whose spectral figure can be seen walking the hallways at night, surrounded by a miasma of protoplasm (a very cool effect). It is revealed that the phantom is that of a former student who went missing the night that a bomb landed in the courtyard. That the bomb did not explode, but remains lodged in the earth as a permanent fixture, functions as a metaphor for the dynamic at play.
As Carlos and the other boys seek to discover the true nature of the ghost, Dr. Casares learns that the Nationalists are advancing and may well be informed about the orphanage. Tensions increase with Jacinto, who makes a murderous play for the gold that ends catastrophically, killing dozens and stalling all attempts at escape. And in the end the ghost meets out justice against his murderer…
Del Toro is an interesting director, clearly an accomplished filmmaker, who chooses to work within the confines of the horror/fantasy genre. He started out in Mexico with a small film called Cronos, about the relationship between a young girl and her grandfather (also Luppi) after a magical device turns him into a vampire of sorts. His first Hollywood production, Mimic, found Mira Sorvino battling mutant creatures in the abandoned subway systems of New York City. That was 1997. Four years later, he went to Spain to make The Devil’s Backbone, a very personal film that clearly shows a filmmaker in command of his craft. His use of camera, lighting, editing are flawless. He draws out the best from his talented cast, many of whom are children. In fact, the lead characters of many of his movies are children – in Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy (Hellboy is actually a teenager with an overdeveloped physique), and Pan’s Labyrinth. And, he isn’t afraid to deal harshly with his young characters – Mimic, Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth all feature the shocking deaths of pre-adolescents.
It’s possible that Del Toro identifies with his young characters the most, unspoiled by experience and open to the worlds of wonder and possibility; in many of the cases cited above, they are our surrogates in the worlds he creates. We are shocked when acts of violence are committed against them, but the characters he creates act like real kids – and not the precocious savants of contemporary Hollywood films – and they are not immune from real horror and loss.
Following The Devil’s Backbone, Del Toro was hired on to do Blade II, which he stated he used as a test bed for his pet project, the big budget Hellboy, an adaptation of the comic book series created by Mike Mignola. After Hellboy, he returned to Spain, and to the setting of the Spanish Civil War, for Pan’s Labyrinth.