14 March 2007

The Devil's Backbone

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Muñoz

Grade: B-

With the recent critical success of Pan’s Labyrinth, I reckoned there was no better time to step back and check out what del Toro has called its companion film, The Devil’s Backbone. They have a lot in common—both are portraits of orphaned children surviving the Spanish Civil War who get into trouble by hanging out underground—but where Pan was fantastical and visually sumptuous, Devil’s is supernatural and on all accounts flat. Both however, for what it's worth, open with the image of a bloodied child, apparently a fetish of Mr. del Toro's?

Carlos is a handsome, sympathetic stripling left at a school for war orphans, run by Republican sympathizers, where he must contend with a bully, a hot-headed swarth and a ghost known as “the one who sighs” (for a moment I thought they were talking about me, and I was embarrassed that the actors could hear my apparently audible expressions of exasperation), not to mention the war raging all around them. In a bit of rather heavy-handed symbolism, del Toro sticks a large, undetonated bomb smack dab in the middle of the campus’ courtyard; tensions are high at the school, just waiting for something to set them off, not only figuratively but, sigh, literally.

Though told primarily from a child’s point of view, The Devil’s Backbone is in no way sugary; it has more than its fair share of brutal violence and dirty sex. Life during wartime hasn’t the time nor the means for the preservation of youthful innocence, and eventually, or inevitably, the surrounding violence infiltrates the school's walls, culminating in, sigh, explosive violence that not only knocks most of the characters off their feet but the film itself as well.

When The Devil's Backbone gets back up, it seems to have forgotten who it was. What was formerly a horror movie, crossed with guerric drama, suddenly becomes a revenge saga with Lord of the Flies undertones; while cinematic generic hybrids sometimes work, here the mishmash of styles just leaves the film feeling unfocused.

But aside from all that, del Toro’s most pronounced and unforgivable fault is that he’s such a Catholic filmmaker. He has an insistently naïve conception of good and evil as starkly exclusive—for example, it's the kind of film in which one of the villains is named “Pig”—as well as a belief that those on earth can’t succeed without the benevolence of those outside the realm of petty physics, whether it’s a magical faun or a creepy ghostboy. That kind of idealistic simplicity may make for good manipulative heartwarming, but it just doesn’t make for good storytelling.

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