Reading manchicken’s comment on my Pan’s Labyrinth review, I realized it might be helpful to post the review I wrote for Guillermo del Toro’s earlier The Devil’s Backbone. As you can tell, this was written in early ‘02, but it might be even more relevant today.

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“What is a ghost? An emotion, a tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again? 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.”

The ghosts of September 11th have hovered over our country for weeks now. Despite the passage of time, our “victory” in Afghanistan, and everyone’s desire to “get back to normal,” there is something about the tragedy that refuses to release its hold. Is it due to the catastrophic loss of life? The sheer senselessness of it all? The fear of another attack? Probably all of those things. Yet, I think if we were to be honest with ourselves, we’d also have to include another factor–our brutally rude awakening to the nature of evil and death which we are usually so careful to avoid.

Hollywood is, of course, complicit in our evasion of this reality. In the movies, death is usually just a plot device or, worse, a sign of victory, a validation of the hero’s power. Evil, when it’s not presented as some historical artifact, is cartoonish or insane and can be dispatched with relative ease. And even if it’s more than that, well we can just walk out of the theater into the bright light of reality. But now the bright light has turned into something harsher, and we’re all finding it difficult to adjust to the glare.

devils_backbone.jpgSo if I may, let me recommend that you make a point of seeing The Devil’s Backbone. It is a film that speaks to our present and very human condition, that reminds us of the cost of violence but also the virtues of love and sacrifice, that wipes the mist from our eyes and helps us to see things as they are, and that reminds us that the ghosts of history must be dealt with and not ignored.

The movie, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro (Cronos), is set in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, as the Nationalists are gaining the upper hand over the leftists. Carlos (played by Fernando Tielve), a ten-year-old whose father was killed in the war, is brought to a boys’ orphanage that is secretly supporting the leftists. Left behind, he’s forced to fit in with the other boys who are predictably antagonistic.

The ringleader is Jaime (Inigo Garces), an older kid who tests Carlos’s loyalty and fortitude. One night, after Carlos accidentally knocks over a pitcher of water, Jaime challenges him to cross the courtyard and get another pitcher. While Carlos is there, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a worker in the orphanage who’s trying to locate and steal some gold he believes is hidden, comes into the kitchen. Carlos is forced to hide in the basement, where he’s startled by a ghost. The other boys have also seen the ghost and believe it’s a former classmate of theirs, a boy named Santi who was killed by an unexploded bomb in the school’s courtyard.

The orphanage’s leaders, an older woman named Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and an older man named Casares (Federico Luppi), don’t quite believe in the ghost but they’re happy to help Carlos. They’d like to help Jacinto, too (he lived in the orphanage as a boy), but he’s too selfish. All of this comes to a head when the war approaches the village, and everyone is forced to leave.

One of the things I like about The Devil’s Backbone is how it incorporates various themes into the film’s plot. Casares is in love with Carmen, but he’s also impotent and feels unworthy of her. In many movies, that would lead to some big statement about sexuality, but here it’s seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Other issues–such as money and greed, growing up, memory, homoeroticism–are raised, but they all take place in the natural course of the story.

screens_roundup4-1.jpgThe most impressive aspect of The Devil’s Backbone, however, is its approach to violence. A woman is stabbed, and you can feel her agony. A boy is cut with a knife, and the suffering is palpable. This is in stark contrast to almost every other movie currently in theaters. In The Lord of the Rings, hundreds of creatures are massacred and not one ounce of blood is spilled, not one real emotion is felt. In fact, it is rare to find any movie that tries to convey actual pain. Instead, we’re programmed to think violence doesn’t have any results, that killing and maiming are routine.

This desensitivity to violence and its victims has important effects. There’s a famous “Star Trek” episode which features two worlds that conduct war by computer. The computer tells them how many people in each civilization must be killed, and the leaders give the order. It’s a much more efficient method, they argue, but it’s only possible because the leaders have no contact with either the enemy or their own people that are dying. Violence has entered the abstract and is disconnected from its effects.

The Devil’s Backbone
vividly reminds us that the effects of war and violence are brutal and deeply personal. The film pierces our imperturbation and jolts us from our passivity. It forces us to realize that the victims of war and violence are real people–someone’s children, someone’s parents. But it’s not a pacifist’s movie. It acknowledges that sometimes violence is required and that some wars are good, but it reminds us that we should not embrace violence lightly. Furthermore, it argues that even necessary violence has lasting effects, ghosts that will not always be mollified.

Lest I paint The Devil’s Backbone as some philosophical tract, it is also a fantastic ghost story, reminiscent of The Sixth Sense. It has gripping characters and provides a compelling portrait of a community. The acting is strong, from the young boys to the accomplished seniors. The cinematography by Guillermo Navarro is stunning, particularly in how he contrasts the world inside the orphanage with the landscape outside. And the music, courtesy of Javier Navarrete, is haunting. There aren’t many movies that work on both narrative and metaphorical levels. The Devil’s Backbone succeeds brilliantly at both.

The Devil’s Backbone: four 1/2 stars, out of five