Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Devil's Backbone

You know what's exciting? Good movies! A film which has imagery that sticks with you, genuine tension, a densely packed narrative that never feels over-stuffed, good performances and direction. Impressive for the era special effects that may have aged a bit badly, but are used in full recognition of this fact and just amp the tension by being mostly hidden. It feels like a long time since I've seen a movie that I've regarded as genuinely amazing - Bonnie And Clyde maybe - but finally, here's a picture that I think is among the best you can get. The Devil's Backbone is finally a film everyone should see.

Guillermo Del Toro describes this as the brother of his highly acclaimed and highly amazing - and fairly depressing - film Pan's Labyrinth, albeit from a few years before. This is an apt description, though it's hardly saying that the films are identical. Like siblings, you can tell that they come from roughly the same place, and if you didn't know who Del Toro was you could probably understand that he did both.

Like the later film, this is a personal story, using history and the supernatural as texture. Fernando Tielve is Carlos, a young kid whose parents were killed in the Spanish Civil War. He is sent to an orphanage, which is giving support to one side, and is haunted by ghost of a recently killed kid, with an undetonated bomb in the middle of the street. An extremely dense narrative spools out around the kid, as he is caught in the problems of adults which he cannot hope to understand.

One of the keys here is that there is a lot of tension, and as the film goes on it becomes clear that it's not a safe world that the characters inhabit. As a result, the tension becomes increasingly real, as even if it goes towards a karmically appropriate ending for the most villainous, it might not necessarily head towards a happy one. Tension is created because you begin to like the characters, but also know that nobody is safe in the world they inhabit.

It's also amazingly well acted, especially considering the sheer number of child actors on set. The adults have a great emotional depth as well - Federico Luppi as the kindly old man Dr. Casares needs to be singled out for his masterfully controlled performance, as he commands the screen and your respect even when he does nothing at all - and the performances are all as complex as the film itself is.

This is an astonishingly good movie, an example of what can happen when everyone involve gives some of their best work. It's classified as a horror movie, but it's got more depth than that simple description can provide. It is, more than anything else, about understanding, both the world around you and your own actions. Del Toro is one of the rare directors who can create spectacle, horror and action, but consistently have his characters be more memorable than the most elaborate set pieces he can devise. This is, finally, a movie everyone should see.

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