Monday, 9 April 2007

The Devil's Backbone (2001)

The Devil's Backbone

The Devil's Backbone is the earlier 'brother' movie to writer/director Guillermo del Toro's triumphant Pan's Labyrinth which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film earlier this year, and which I reviewed here.

Like its 'sister' movie, The Devil's Backbone is set in the time of the Spanish Civil War and can loosely be termed a 'horror' movie, albeit one with such intelligence and depth of character that the usual labels don't apply. The film was previously (I've been told) only available as a rather poor non-anamorphic DVD, but has now been released in a pristine new transfer as part of this Guillermo del Toro box set, which leaves the director's fans with a difficult decision: do they purchase Pan's Labyrinth on its own as a double-disc set, or forfeit the extra disc and purchase it in this boxed set which includes the new edition of The Devil's Backbone, as well as the Special Edition of the director's first film Cronos (which is also available separately, where The Devil's Backbone isn't!)

Personally I'd opt for the latter - The Devil's Backbone is an exceptionally good film, and although the critics generally seem to think the later Labyrinth movie is the better of the two - and a real masterpiece - I find it hard to favour one over the other. In some ways The Devil's Backbone is more mainstream, omitting some of the extreme violence that peppered Pan's Labyrinth and made the film less accessible to some.

Carlos is the new arrival at the orphanage. Not realising why he is there he nevertheless senses the presence of a ghostly young boy of about his own age

As the film starts we meet Carlos, on a 'visit' to a rather remote orphanage that is intended to be a permanent one. Carlos is a young boy whose father has been killed in the War, although he doesn't know it yet. The orphanage is run by the kindly, but somewhat curt, Carmen, who tries to keep the boys fed and clothed, despite difficulties caused by the ongoing Spanish Civil War which cause appalling poverty and rationing. Carmen has gold to keep the orphanage running, but it seems even gold is no longer enough to acquire the required food and munitions, with the fascists starting to close in. She runs the orphanage with the help of the kindly Professor Cesares and the young couple Jacarto and Conchita, who, it appears, are planning to get married. However Jacarto, a former pupil at the orphanage, is only helping out in order to steal Carmen's gold, and is using Conchita just as he's using the elderly Carmen who he's sleeping with.

Carlos becomes the victim of bullies, but holds his ground and appears to take some solace in 'talking' to an unexploded, reportedly harmless, bomb that is the main feature of the orphanage courtyard. During one of these talks he sees the ghost of a boy, Santi, of about his own age who warns him that 'Many will die'. As the fascist troops appear to be about to move in Jacarto is ready to make his move and steal Carmen's gold, and Carlos becomes less afraid of the ghost who appears to be trying to warn him of the death and bloodshed that will soon arrive.

In fact there's a lot more to the story, than the somewhat crude synopsis above reveals (two unrequited love stories just for starters) and it's these side stories that make del Toro's work so intruguing

The orphanage is run by the curt, but good-hearted, Carmen with the help of the kindly Professor Casares

In many ways it's hard to find something new to say about this film when compared with others from the same director. All the things I've come to expect are here: a brilliant, totally believable cast, wonderful cinematography, a script that has real depth and subtle touches that only get noticed on subsequent re-viewings.

It's actually impossible to highlight the best acting performance because they are all so good. Edoardo Noriega, as the fascistic Jacarto, manages to convince in a very difficult role where he has to be the blacker-than-black villain, whilst also being good-looking, sexy and charming enough to convince us that the kind-hearted Conchitta and older Carmen would fall for his charms. Federico Luppi breaks your heart as the kindly professor, in a role very different from that he played in the same director's previous Cronos film. Fernando Tielve feels like he's stepped off the page of many a traditional children's fairy tale, giving what could have been a two-dimensional character real flesh and blood. And... the list goes on. There is not a dud performance here, not even in the most minor of roles.

Jacinto has the charm and good looks to fool the ladies of the orphanage he was formerly a pupil at, but he has a black soul and is using the women and their orphanage for his own means

If you like your stories one dimensional, with little other than the main 'ghost' story featured, then this may not be the film for you. It's the depth del Toro gives in small side-stories and characters that, for me, make films like this stand head and shoulders above the simplistic, unimaginative likes of the Harry Potter movies. You might argue that this is an unfair comparison since one is a children's adventure story, and the other is a horror movie, but I would argue that these films are actually very similar in the sort of story they have to tell - they are both 'rites of passage' movies - it's just that one is extremely infantile and derivative, where the other is intelligent and has real depth.

That del Toro manages to achieve what he does, with uniformly enthusiastic reviews from public and critics alike, despite the film 'suffering' from a non-English language soundtrack, is a testimony to the power of his work as a film-maker, and it's scandalous that the man hasn't had the freedom he should have had when making his English-language Hollywood films. The Devil's Backbone is a wonderful film, and if you enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth I strongly urge you to check out The Devil's Backbone too - it really is in the same league.

'Many of you will die' warns the ghost of Santi, a former pupil at the orphanage

The film may be excellent, but the DVD loses a mark for the extra's. Unfortunately the decent extra's have been placed on other releases in the del Toro box set, or in the two disc release of Pan's Labyrinth. You get a short Making of featurette and that's pretty much it, other than the excellent 'UK exclusive' director's commentary. As has become par for the course the director points out lots of little gems that you wouldn't notice on a single viewing (eg all the 'good' characters have names that begin with a 'C', all the 'bad' characters names begin with a 'J', while the bully who could go either way has a name that starts with a deliberately ambiguous 'H'!). There is an extra that looks like it's going to be a featurette on the film's effects, but it turns out to be just raw footage used that is the film equivalent of watching paint dry. The commentary is full of the usual fascinating insights from del Toro, but is hidden away on the audio menu, not the extra's one, so easy to miss.

So the DVD is excellent, but the way the film company have chosen to make this new pristine DVD transfer and diretor's commentary exclusive to this boxed set is extremely annoying for those fans who want the most complete versions of all del Toro's Spanish films. If you want the most complete and interesting versions of each DVD you will end up, like me, having to buy Pan's Labyrinth again to get the decent extra's that are exclusive to the standalone two-disc release. If the film company had released this excellent new version of The Devil's Backbone as a standalone release, would-be purchasers could then have purchased the best versions of all three films without having to make double-dip purchases. I suspect that a standalone version of this film will suddenly appear on the schedules once this boxed set has been given the time needed to maximise its sales.

Which brings me onto the box set itself. Overall I'll give it an eight out of ten. Cronos lets it down because of the poor picture quality, but otherwise it's an excellent value-for-money package, and comes with a nice 16-page colour booklet that summarises del Toro's film career. Highly recommended!

Thwarted in his attempts to steal gold from the orphenage, Jacinto destroys the gasoline needed to get the boys to safety in an explosion that destroys part of the building, which has fatal consequences for Professor Cesares

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