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DEVIL’S BACKBONE, THE (Espinazo del Diablo, El)(director/writer: Guillermo del Toro; screenwriters: Antonio Trashorras/David MuñozAntonio Trashorras/David Muñoz; cinematographer: Guillermo Navarro; editor: Luis De La Madrid; music: Javier Navarrete; cast: Eduardo Noriega (Jacinto), Marisa Paredes (Carmen), Federico Luppi (Dr. Casares), Íñigo Garcés (Jaime), Fernando Tielve (Carlos), Irene Visedo (Conchita), Berta Ojea (Alma), (Pig), Junio Valverde (Santi); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Agustín Almodóvar and Bertha Navarro; Sony Picture Classics; 2001-Spain, in Spanish with English subtitles)
A visually appealing daylight ghost story…

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Devil’s Backbone” is a visually appealing daylight ghost story by the 36-year-old Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (“Cronos“/”Mimic“). In this ambitious work, the director makes it more than a ghost story, as he mixes in a political fable with a fairy tale story and tacks on a boy’s coming-of-age adventure story. The ghost story that del Toro wishes to tell is not meant to be scary, but to communicate the horrors of war in a supernatural way. Del Toro was influenced by such movie luminaries as Hitchcock and B-movie horror fave Mario Bava. What del Toro does differently from those experienced filmmakers is combine cheesy ghost scenes that could be straight out of a Bava B movie and juxtaposes them with a proper straight story about the orphans.

“Backbone’s” tight script was co-written by del Toro with Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz. The story is told mainly through the images, as the dialogue is sparse and used mostly to provide information. The images are repeated and come in pairs. If we see one scene showing a classroom lesson about hunting mammoths with spears, its complementary scene comes later on when the orphans get their revenge on the human monster who is threatening them. The film is constructed like a fairy tale rhyme, as it’s styled to show the vulnerable innocents at the mercy of the ravishing wolf. As one can imagine any story that uses as its background the final days of the Spanish Civil War before the fall of Catalonia, would most likely be politically motivated.

The film’s interesting sounding title refers to how poverty and disease destroys childhood before it develops. The doctor in the Santa Lucia orphanage keeps a pickled rum jar of stillborn babies who have deformed backbones (devil’s backbone), and sells the juice as a cure-all to the superstitious.

The film opens as a leftist fighter in the Civil War drops off a scared ten year old named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) in an orphanage for those Republican children whose parents died fighting against Franco. Carlos’ father was killed in battle, but he’s not been told. The school is headed by an elderly expatriate Argentinean intellectual scientist, Dr. Casares (Luppi). He is distinguished-looking and has a trimmed silver beard and glistening silver hair. Carlos is made to feel comfortable by Dr. Casares’ kindly way of welcoming him to the school. The principal is a middle-aged woman with an artificial leg named Carmen (Marisa Paredes), whose husband died some 20 years ago for the cause and she has become cynical even though she remains dedicated to the children and the cause. The gentle and wise Dr. Casares loves Carmen but his love is not fulfilled in a biblical sense because he’s impotent. Carmen needs not only poetry in her life but sex, and she gets that from the inarticulate hunky school handyman Jacinto (Noriega). Jacinto came to the school as a pupil 15 years ago and remained rather than joining the battle when he came of age. He is sexually servicing Carmen not for pleasure, but as a power trip. Carmen also views this impersonal sex as a political act of power. Conchita (Visedo) is the sweet maid whom Jacinto is promising to marry if he can get enough money for them to buy a farm. Jacinto stays on because he knows the Republican loyalists have entrusted Carmen with gold ingots and he’s trying to find out where the gold is hidden so he can steal it. Jacinto can only express himself in action and not through words, so his mood swings show his callow nature and how capable of violence he can be.

The outcome has turned in favor of the fascists, so the school puts up Catholic icon pictures inside and hangs a crucifix outside the school to disguise its past loyalties to the Republicans. There’s an unexploded bomb in the courtyard that remains as a fixed piece of art sculpture, but the children still think they hear the undetonated bomb that was turned off still ticking inside (like a heart). The unexploded bomb is a symbol of the never-ending dangerous times. There’s also a ghost in the building, as the day the bomb fell an orphan named Santi disappeared and now his presence is heard through sighs. Carlos has been given Santi’s bed, and on his first night can’t sleep because of the sighs. The oldest of the children and a former friend of Santi, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), bullies Carlos into going down to the kitchen to replace the jug of water he spilled when he became afraid. To Carlos’s surprise he clearly sees the ghost of Santi in the basement and the ghost appears just as if he were another scared child in the school. The ghost is not scary even though he appears pale and bloody from a bruise on his forehead. Santi is the innocent victim of foul play and can’t help looking so ghastly. What Santi wants now is to warn Carlos about how he died. How Santi died will later on be revealed by Jaime, who was with him on the night of the air raid.

Through the musings of Dr. Casares, the film asks “What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain, perhaps? Something dead which appears at times alive. A sentiment suspended in time … like a blurry photograph … like an insect trapped in amber.” That sentiment of what a ghost is will be repeated at the film’s conclusion, as the ghost will be seen as symbolic of Spain’s bloody past and the lesson to be learned will be how to survive and not drown in greedy ambitions as does the villain. The school as the war nears its end has become a ghost-like image, as the administrators hope to flee from the fascists and from the fascist-like Jacinto before it’s too late. To avenge the death of Santi the story wishfully concludes in an act of poetic justice, as the timid inherit the earth by learning from their past school lesson about hunting. The children have no other way to survive but to hunt down their nemesis as if he were a wild boar.

Del Toro’s film, which he says was a labor of love and his favorite film to date, tells a sensible and lyrical ghost story. It’s a flawless technical accomplishment, a visually pleasing work and was extremely well-acted, but it remains dry and emotionless. “The Devil’s Backbone” just didn’t have enough backbone to be less polite and more forceful in its political thrust except in a general way. As a cautionary ghost story it is intelligent, but it’s not a film I fell in love with. All the characters were used more as symbols than as real flesh and blood figures, which meant for some heavy going. Carlos as a symbol of the wartime innocent, is the hope for the future. The administrators represent the past, as they were good people but were impotent to save the country. While Jacinto is symbolic of the brutality that the uncaring fascists or their silent followers were capable of as they pillaged the country. The fascists still remain a threat in the present, as their ghosts linger. Outside of being symbols, the characters seemed to hardly matter. What stood out was the excellent photography by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who got off one good shot after another. There was one amazing shot of the ghost Carlos sees in the corridor of the school, as the bluish metallic lighting made the scene look eerily surreal.

REVIEWED ON 3/31/2003 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”