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Sunday 13 January 2002

The Devil's Backbone

Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Produced by Pedro Almodóvar

Reviewed by John Shirley

This tale of ghosts, fascist politics and the half-life of cruelty is a Spanish film with a Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, who made the genuinely creepy Mimic and the bizarrely unnerving Cronos. You know, there aren't enough real film makers around. There are instead mostly the pansy buttboys of the studios, who wouldn't know an authentic cinematic vision if it bit them gently on the back of the neck during their regularly scheduled reamings. (In the Business the reamings are called Story Conferences). Guillermo del Toro is a real film maker.

From the start of The Devil's Backbone we're in the grip of a master of atmosphere and storytelling: We're immediately caught up in sympathy for Carlos (Fernando Tielve), recently orphaned when his father was killed in the ongoing Spanish civil war of 1938; we're immediately immured in the juices of the film — a film with the sepia tones of human skin in a preserving jar — and we're right away sure that we've standing in the icy wind that flows through the doorway of the afterlife. The child-ghost that haunts this nearly abandoned orphanage — a place with a Symbol stuck in the midst of the courtyard, an unexploded bomb — makes his presence felt from the first. The orphanage is overseen by a one-legged matron, Carmen (Marisa Paredes, a great actress familiar from Almodóvar's films) and a sad but wise old literati, Dr Casares (Federico Luppi). These two are antifascists who keep gold for the underground — though their charges haven't enough to eat — and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a bitter former orphan turned assistant, is plotting to get the gold. His plot involves the seduction of Carmen, and just as much murder as necessary. He's not heartless, but he's so angry and damaged by the loss of his parents, many years ago, that he cannot see past his hunger for revenge against the imprisoning, pitiless world... which the orphanage personifies to him.

A child dies. The child's ghost, known to the children as "the one who sighs," haunts a cistern under the orphanage, and haunts Carlos, as well as a lonely young bully. The bullying orphan is a Jacinto in the making, until events bond him with Carlos... Murder, explosions, stabbings, and a "lord of the flies"-like denouement pace the film — yet none of this bloodletting and angst seems gratuitous in del Toro's hands. Instead it seems inexorable as the sowing of suffering after the rusty plough of war. The unexploded bomb is perhaps a heavy handed symbol, but del Toro weaves it beautifully right into the story — it even seems to actively offer up a clue itself at one point — and belongs where del Toro puts it: in the heart of this microcosmic community. When we make war, we create orphans and angry people; all that "collateral damage" has its longterm consequences, tragedy gestates yet more tragedy; the angry children created by war grow up to be angry adults who make war who then create angry children who...and on and on it goes.

There is redemption through a kind of community of sufferers, a transcendence of victimhood, and this too is played out in the film as the ghostly boy leads the children to revenge and escape when the last stand-ins for their lost parents are murdered.

Poetry in an otherworldly voice-over frames the film; a finely wrought, meaningful poetry in exact counterpoise to the stark imagery of del Toro's cinematography — every frame like an Edvard Munch painting. And there's much of Picasso's Guernica here too...

The characters are archetypal — the patriarchal sad old sage, the tragic matron who nurses the secret fires of eros, the wounded orphans, the ghost boy: personification of all abandoned children — but somehow never trite. They are fully fleshed, brought to life by deft brushstrokes and brilliant actors.

And yes, it's subtitled, but unlike the average Asian film, the subtitling translation has been done intelligently. Perhaps because there's not so much difference between Spanish and English as between English and, say, Japanese.

The film resembles The Others thematically and in tone — both film makers snubbing Poltergeist-like Spielbergian excess for Shirley Jacksonesque atmosphere — but the unwinding of del Toro's plot seems more taut and perfectly believable, the characters more inevitably themselves in context of the social tragedy that has made them... Ultimately The Devil's Backbone is a better film, and The Others wasn't bad at all. It's not in every theatre, but it's in the better ones. If you're a fan of ghost stories — or just movies with meaning to match their menace — don't miss this one.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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