The Devil's Backbone
2001, R, 106 min. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Starring Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Iñigo Garces, Fernando Tielve, Junio Valverde.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 15, 2002
Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut were an unlikely pair – the prim master of suspense and his sensitive, derelict French pupil – yet one suspects they would agree on The Devil's Backbone, a Spanish-language festival darling in which Guillermo del Toro marries the sensibilities of those two great auteurs into one elegant, spooky story. Best known for the blood & guts spunk of Mimic, Blade, and Blade 2 (which has its world premiere at SXSW this Saturday), the formerly Austin-based del Toro limits the gore here for more old-fashioned scares, coupled with a slow gorgeousness that feels almost archaic in a genre now subsumed by frenzied jump cuts, quick payoffs, and a sloppy inattention to detail. The Devil's Backbone is nothing if not exquisitely detailed: It's like a blood orange that del Toro spends the film seductively unpeeling, revealing layer upon layer of meaning and pathos. The story is set in a crumbling boys' school that has mutated into an orphanage cum fallout shelter as the Spanish Civil War rips apart the neighboring countryside. (The charming ensemble of orphans here easily recall the lost boys of Small Change and The 400 Blows.) One night, an errant bomb falls to earth and lodges itself in the cracked earth of the school's courtyard, miraculously never detonating. That same night, one of the boys, Santi (Valverde), disappears. Newcomer Carlos (Tielve) quickly matches up the missing Santi with the hollow-eyed, molding specter he's been seeing around the grounds. Santi whispers to the terrified Carlito that many of them will be dead soon. It's the beginning in a series of not-quite twists in the tale – that would suggest too much swiftness in this delectably languorous film that moves with all the speed of the bleary-hot Spanish sun. (Only occasionally does the slow pacing threaten to sabotage the film's suspense.) The film's title refers to a condition, later diagnosed as spina bifida, that afflicts babies in the womb – “children of no one, the children that shouldn't have been born,” as the school's stately yet impotent Dr. Cásares (Luppi) explains to Carlos. Dr. Cásares keeps jars of the deformed fetuses floating in whiskey (a drink from the jars supposedly wards off impotence), and that grotesque image provides one of the film's most haunting visual metaphors. It reinforces the conflicting forces of good and evil that permeate the piece – how something so beautiful could turn out so badly, and how there is something beautiful to be found even in the worst lot. That paradox applies to almost everyone here – the embittered schoolmistress (the always excellent Marisa Paredes); the gamekeeper, Jacinto (Noriega), an orphan himself bent on reversing his fate; the powerless doctor; the orphans, who must react to violence with violence; even Santi, at first a terrifying aberration, but in reality the ultimate lost boy, a pitiful casualty of war and greed who only wants to find his way home.