Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Devil's Backbone (2001)

a.k.a. El Espinazo del Diablo (Spanish title)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Format: On Demand
Starring: Íñigo Garcés, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Irene Visedo, Fernando Tielve

I'd first seen a trailer for The Devil's Backbone some years ago in an art haus theater. I don't remember what I'd gone there to see, but I remember keeping this Spanish movie in the back of my mind. So, on a dark and stormy recent night after a few martinis, I'd only barely convinced myself not to stop at the video store on the way home. On Demand, I reasoned, would have to suffice in the name of my budget (Grey Goose martinis are seldom cheap). But, I was lucky that night and happened upon The Devil's Backbone in the horror menu. It was just the perfect selection for my mood and one I'd seemed to have put off for too long. I remember seeing del Toro in person, at a special screening of an early film in Austin. Of course, he went on to direct Pan's Labrynth, so the credentials behind this movie are substatial.

Somewhere, in a rural area of war-torn Spain, there is an orphanage. An old widow, Carmen (played by Marisa Paredes), runs the boy's home with the gold left behind by her late husband. After, Carlos (Tielve) loses his father, family friends leave him in the care of Carmen. With his stash of comic books and wind-up toys, the boy makes fast friends. Jaime (Garcés) is the resident bully and he's not terribly impressed with Carlos, and maybe a little jelous. During his first night, Carlos learns that the orphanage harbors a secret - there's a ghost roaming about. He also learns that the young handyman, Jacinto (Noriega) has a thirst for gold. The war hovers nearer their doorsteps and yet their greatest threat may come from inside. Is it the little boy's ghost or the greedy Jacinto that will ruin them all? What horrible secret is Jaime privy to? Where is the gold hidden and who will come out of this place alive?

History not being my strong suit, I couldn't begin to tell you which famous Spanish war is raging in The Devil's Backbone. del Toro knows though, and he seems fond of showing its effects on children. In both this film and in Pan's Labrynth, he depicts the orphans of this particular entaglement. While not concentrating on the fighting itself, he chooses to explore the lives of who may have been left behind. I tend to sympathize with his choice. Often, history is told of heroes and noble generals, not the underestimated courage of people on the fringe. His focus is poinant and special.

No matter what language, good acting shines through. For a child actor, Ferando Tielve does an impressive job. The majority of the boys do what they do best - be boys. The best character by far, was Irene Visedo. She plays a tough, amputee widow with dignity and grace. Íñigo Garcés was a little less convincing and I think he was chosen mostly for his eye-candy factor (if you're into that sort of thing). His girlfriend, Conchita (played by Irene Visedo) is a noble character, but really little more than an ornament in this film. All around, half of the cast acted suburbly and the other half was so-so.

The Devil's Backbone is really a story within a story. The dual plot keeps things interesting and the perspective of the young characters makes the film refreshing. I liked the way the movie was shot, with plenty of dusty browns and shadows. I think the bomb might have been developed a little more as an aspect of the film. It's hinted at and maybe some of the symolism escaped me, but it could have played a bigger part. This movie is not as fanciful, even considering the ghost, as Pan's Labrynth and I believe that there was more room for that fantastic aspect. One thing's for certain though, I shouldn't have waited so long to see The Devil's Backbone.

Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Hottie Rating: 1, maybe

Alternate Recommendation: Pan's Labrynth
Official SiteIMDB Page
The Austin Chronicle's review

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