Film Reviews

THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE

By • Nov 21st, 2001 •

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106 minutes / in Spanish with English subtitles
From Sony Pictures Classics / Rated R

It’s remarkable how flexible the horror/ghost story genre has proven at giving filmmakers the ability to comment on politics, society and human nature. Depression-era audiences alleviated their real fears of an out-of-control economy by screaming at Karloff’s Frankenstein monster and Lugosi’s Dracula; atomic-age worries were effectively externalized by giant ants, Martian invaders and pod people. Today’s audiences take their creepies with a side of irony, as TV shows like the clever BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER deal with everything from sexuality, drug abuse, censorship and AIDS via metaphor, indirection and humor.

With THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, director Guillermo del Toro avails himself of the ghost story’s conventions to create a film with a surprising relevance to the current political situation. Although it’s set in 1930s Spain, during the Spanish Civil War that pitted Franco’s fascists (backed by Hitler) against Republicans and leftists of many stripes, the film is a microcosm of that particular conflict, set in an isolated school/orphanage far from the actual fighting. The film’s destructive villain could easily pass for one of today’s terrorists-he certainly isn’t picky about who he kills, including women and children.

Actually, THE DEVIL’s BACKBONE mixes and matches a number of genres. It’s told mainly through the eyes of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a boy left at a school run by Carmen, the widow of a Communist (a beautifully no-nonsense performance by Marisa Paredes), and her admirer Cásares (the elegant Federico Luppi). Other key characters are Jaime (Iñigo Garces), an older bully who at first confronts but later confides in Carlos, and handsome, destructive Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), working as a handyman at the orphanage he grew up in and now hates with a passion.

So we get a child’s-eye-view of growing up, a bit of Spanish-style soap opera, as well as a war story (there’s an unexploded bomb in the school’s courtyard, like a fat, off-kilter memorial to a war that’s still going on) and a ghost story. Santi, a boy who was killed the night the bomb fell from the sky, is a restless spirit who pulls a poltergeist on Carlos and others.

The special effects-along with the camerawork, lighting and music-are all extremely well done. Del Toro limits his color palette to the tans, browns and greens of the desert setting, making the blood that eventually appears even more shocking. Santi, whose body rests in an underwater cavern, seems to bring his watery environment with him. Like most of the ghostly effects, it’s unsettling and spooky without being “boo!” scary. The overall restraint-in the performances and the visual effects-is also a lot more effective than other recent horror outings, like the high-pitched and numbingly hysterical Nicole Kidman film THE OTHERS..

For all these positives, though, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is ultimately underwhelming, especially in its emotional impact. I wanted to like this movie more than I did. Perhaps the care del Toro takes-and even the poetry (visual and verbal) he uses-are too much for the simple, violent story he’s telling. It probably doesn’t help that the Spanish Civil War, while it provoked high passions around the world at the time, no longer carries the direct emotional associations (at least for an Anglo audience) that World War II or the U.S. Civil War do.

THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is certainly the work of a talented filmmaker (del Toro co-wrote the screenplay as well as directed). It does include a handful of remarkable performances (including Noriega’s frustrated killer Jacinto). If it’s ultimately less than the sum of its parts, many of the parts shine brightly.


Credits:
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz

Cast:
Eduardo Noriega,
Marisa Paredes,
Federico Luppi,
Iñigo Garces,
Fernando Tielve,
Irene Visedo,
Berta Ojea

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