Monday, October 29, 2007

The Devil's Backbone (2001) (aka "El Espinazo del Diablo")

Last year Pan's Labyrinth took the world by storm with its chilling horror, fable-like storytelling, eerie mysticism and deeply human insights into the life and mind of a child. Recently I had the pleasure of watching The Devil's Backbone, an earlier work by the same director, Guillermo del Toro, exhibiting the same qualities. This also involves a child and the Spanish Civil War, this time a young boy of about ten, Carlos, who is abandoned at a dirt-poor orphanage haunted by a ghost who sighs. The orphanage is run by an aging woman with a wooden leg, her equally venerable support and romantic love, and a younger man with a sinister side; in the center of its courtyard functioning as a constant reminder of the war outside is a large bomb that landed once, didn't explode, and was eventually disarmed. Reflecting the cruelty of their environment, the other boys bully Carlos at first, but he manages to befriend them and solve the mystery of the ghost.

The grittier camerawork and burnt-sienna color scheme distinguish The Devil's Backbone immediately from del Toro's more recent hit. The ghost itself is grotesque and truly horrifying, and the violence in the film reflective of both the personal cruelty of the human heart and the social cruelty of fascism and poverty. Unlike a Hollywood film, the movie doesn't begin its resolution at the biggest explosion or the most bodies acquired; it isn't over till the ramifications have been played out, till everything is even more ravaged than you thought it could be; like ghosts, the characters live on, demanding attention after they've been written off as doomed.

This short review can't begin to do justice to such a film, but I highly recommend it, especially for anyone who loved Pan's Labyrinth.