Friday, 21 September 2012

filmbore pick of the week - The Devil's Backbone

The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo Del Diablo) Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz
Starring: Fernando Tielve, Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Irene Visedo
Year: 2001
Languages: Spanish
UK rental release date: March 2002

After the excellent Cronos, new film maker Guillermo Del Toro got the chance to craft a major movie in Hollywood, now known as Mimic - a decent film that's entertaining, but not a reflection on his incredible debut. So what did he do next?...

Thankfully, his next project was to become one of his best. Now an auteur of film, lovingly building new landscapes in cinema with his own personal visions, Del Toro is synonymous with his more recent affairs, the Hellboy movies and the unforgettable Pan's Labyrinth. But it would be his third picture that would cement his look, his feel, his world...his scandalously overlooked film The Devil's Backbone.

Carlos (Fernando Tielve, Goya's Ghosts, Unmade Beds) has been left to an orphanage after his father was taken in the Spanish Civil War. Joining other children who's family have fared the same fate, he has to establish himself in this new environment while pressure mounts as the knowledge of the previous owner of his new bed, Santi, slowly becomes more aware to him. orphanage is run by Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi, Cronos, Martin (Hache), Fermat's Room) and his friend of many years Carmen (Marisa Paredes, Life Is Beautiful, The Skin I Live In), who have an underlying responsibility to more than just the children. They store valuable goods for the Republican loyalists as silent heroes. It's a burden that they hold with humility, as they continue to care for and impart wisdom to the orphans.

There are other plans afoot though, thanks to the aide and groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega, Abre Los Ojos, The Method) who has his eyes on the prize coveted by his employers. He has to question his morals and ethics while seeing his plot through, as his connection to the orphanage, the children and his romantic interest Conchita (Irene Visido, Cuéntame, The Lost Steps) engulfs him. As the children's teacher, Conchita's care and love for the orphans sways his position within his strategy.

But amidst all of these goings on, with themes of war, corruption, drama and politics, the young boy Carlos is on a different path. The more he discovers of his new home, the deeper the mystery of a ghostly presence uncovers itself. Scared but intrigued, he investigates further, drawing out the truth of the orphanage's history and exposing the nature of the other players in the tale.
There is a clear mix of genre's in this film, which can be difficult to handle. It's also a hardship to get your actors to carry your tale when it has different avenues. Luckily,  it has an incredibly strong cast. The child actors are superb, standing strong next to the established adult actors. With everyone sitting so well in their little chunk of the story you don't notice the segregation in plots and vibe. It feels like an encompassing piece at all times, and it's only on recalling portions of the film that you notice how different each scene can be.

It's beautifully written too, with some great lines for each of our star's to play with. A particular chat between Carlos and Dr. Casares about babies in jars (where the film gets it's title from) is a subtle but delicately written monologue that sits as a spine (pardon the pun) to the thematic thread the story upholds.

You have to take note of the visual aspect here as well, as you can see familiar techniques seen in Del Toro's later, more famous pieces. It's wonderful to see where his experience has grown from, as he lets his camera guide you through this thrilling and intricate tale. Also, the special effects sit comfortably, never smothering the film with little moments cropping up when necessary. It's an extremely well measured production, that could have suffered if the safe decision to go with heavy CGI throughout would have been taken.
However, when you strip all of the mechanisms away, you're left with an engrossing twist on a the modern ghost story, sat within a political struggle at an orphanage during the Spanish civil war. This is not how I would want to describe the film, even though these pockets of styles' marriage is an astounding accomplishment, especially so early in Del Toro's ever evolving movie career.

You see, when I want to recommend some world cinema with a mix of genre's that has excitement, inspiration, sentiment and a solidly individual feel this is one of the first films I recommend. That is how I would describe it to people. I also say "it's by that guy that made Pan's Labyrinth" which catches people's attention. Guillermo Del Toro is now a household name, and this movie is proof of what believing in a new creative film maker can do. His output in cinema is extraordinary, and unsurpassed by most, making him clearly one of the most talented directors in the film industry. His visions create awe, and I for one am glad that he has brought us films like The Devil's Backbone, as it has lead him towards a stronger future at making our world a more fantastical place.

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