Devil's Backbone, The (El Espinazo del Diablo) (Spain, 2001)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by Del Toro, Antonio Trashoras, David Munoz. Editing, Luis de la Madrid. Photography, Guillermo Navarro. Art direction, Cesar Macarron. Music, Javier Navarrete. Producers, Austin Almodovar, Berta Navarro. Cast: Eduardo Noriega (Jacinto), Marisa Paredes (Carmen), Federico Luppi (Dr. Casares), Fernando Tielve (Carlos), Irene Visedo (Conchita), Berta Ojea (Alma), et al. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In Spanish, with subtitles. 106 minutes. R (violence)
Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, b. 1964 in Guadalajara, surprised film-lovers with his very first feature, "Cronos" (1993), a successful, ambitious fantasy about vampirism.
His next film was the mega-bug sci-fi "Mimic" (1997), his third was "The Devil's Backbone" made in Spain. Number four is the current "Blade II" about vampires that (or is it "who") eat humans as well as other vampires. Where I live both that movie and "The Devil's Backbone" are now playing simultaneously, to the delight of horror-ites.
"Devil" is set in Spain in what must be 1939, the final year of the Spanish Civil War (it ended in March) as the good guys (Republicans or Loyalists) are about to lose to the bad 'uns (Nationalists or rebels or fascists.) The war background is there, yet not made a major point visually except a brutal scene of prisoners from the International Brigade being executed seriatim by revolver shots into their heads.
The almost-total location of the movie is subtly surreal: a large, war-damaged school which stands alone in a near-barren, sunburnt landscape. The nearest town is one day's walk away.
The school, perhaps once upon a time an "estancia" is a refuge for children of dead Loyalists. It is run by headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), a widow with one artificial leg; her devoted old friend Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) who was always in love with Carmen and apparently gave up his safety and occupation (abroad?) to be with Carmen; Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) a factotum, a former student, a teacher, a handyman and much else; Conchita (Irene Visego) who is engaged to Jacinto and seems to be both teacher and cook; lastly, a woman who is roughly the equivalent of a housekeeper.
To this improvised orphanage is brought young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who must be 10, 11 or 12. His first sight there is the courtyard with a humongous unexploded bomb. It came from a plane, was disarmed and stands there as a totem or something out of "2001: A Space Odyssey." This object bomb is more symbol than reality, since I doubt that airplanes of the day (courtesy of Hitler and Mussolini) could carry such giants.
This is typical of the movie as well as del Toro. Explanations are not provided, mysteries are deliberately not spelled out. What matters is the ambience, which is decidedly, exponentially downbeat, a good case of magic realism.
The day the bomb fell, one boy, Santi, mysteriously disappeared. To make our story short, Santi is now a ghost who apparently "lives" in a huge cistern. He is in some ways like a distant relative of the Phantom of the Opera. And he looks, well, ghostly. Significantly, Santi is befriended by Carlos.
The tale is sometimes leisurely (in the negative sense), at times nice and slow (which is good). I would say that except for the supernatural, the movie is about the collateral damages of wars. Which, directly or not, also include the fact that the cultured scientist Dr. Casares is sexually impotent --yet this is treated with nice black humor; the fact that Jacinto supplies Carmen with sex; the fact that there is a hoard of gold lingots destined for the Republicans but coveted by no-goodniks.
Which ultimate direction the film will take cannot be disclosed. It is enough to say that there is a great deal of bloody actionŠ. This, in a very well acted and photographed original story, pared to the bone in many cases, and free of cliches. For the rest, see the picture.