Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #4: The Devil's Backbone

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 89/A-
Loren’s Grade: A (he doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point system I use)

Max O’Connell: Alright, we just finished The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to Mimic that is, if I may be so bold, a little bit better.

Loren Greenblatt: Just barely a colossal improvement that makes it hard to believe he ever directed Mimic at all.

MO: The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story and fractured fairytale of sorts that came out in 2001. It was a moderate commercial success, a major critical success that got him a lot of respect, and it’s getting more attention now in the years since Pan’s Labyrinth because, in many regards, it’s a companion piece.

LG: They share a lot of things in common: they both deal with the Spanish Civil War, they both center on children dealing with the invasion of both adult, human evil and supernatural elements. Del Toro has said that this is the brother film to Pan’s Labyrinth’s sister film. The plot concerns a young boy named Carlos, played wonderfully by Fernando Tielve, who is sent to an orphanage for sons of the men who fought against Franco’s regime. The orphanage is a spooky place. For starters, there's rumors of a ghost running around. Then there's the small matter of the unexploded bomb in the middle of the courtyard. It’s been diffused, but it’s a powerful symbol of the realities of war and violence that are encroaching upon childhood. As he’s shown around, it feels much like we’re entering a prison film: he’s given a bar of soap to keep, he’s assigned a numbered bed, he’s warned not to try to run away, and he starts to form a bit of a friendship with the other kids that reminded me a bit of the Morgan Freeman-Tim Robbins friendship in The Shawshank Redemption.

MO: In that he has to earn their respect first. The prison parallel is interesting in that this case they’re not held by a cruel group of people, but by good-natured (if flawed) people that have to make very hard decisions in order to keep the kids alive. Federico Luppi (previously the star of Cronos) is Dr. Cesares, who has to be the kind but very pragmatic and stern mentor to the children. The head of the orphanage, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) has to limit what they can eat at any given time in order to guarantee that they’ll have enough.

LG: She’s also dealt with the realities of war- she lost a leg and has to wear a prosthetic, which really looks like something that Del Toro would design (though we have no clue what prosthetics looked like at this point in time). This is a film where Del Toro really comes into his own as a visual stylist. Cronos was done as well as it could be done on its budget, but this feels like he has just the right amount of money to make something special.

MO: We noticed while we watched it that the current DVD edition doesn't have the greatest transfer - we’re waiting for the Criterion blu-ray that's coming out the end of next month - but even so it the film has a wonderful soft look to everything that makes it…not nostalgic, necessarily, but more romantic. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro did a wonderful job here.

LG: The two really developed the two-color lighting techniques that they've become known for. He’s found his own color palette outside of his Argento influences. We’re going to see this as a standard lighting technique for Del Toro in almost all of his films from here on out.

MO: You mentioned that this film has your favorite image in any of Del Toro’s films.

LG: The last shot. It’s a ridiculously simple image, of people walking away framed in a doorway, and then there’s a silhouette. It's hard to explain why it works without spoiling it but it's a wonderful, mysterious image that points to the mysterious nature of death.

MO: Del Toro’s also always been in debt to Cronenberg with the body-horror thing, and that’s here, but in a more Del Toro-esque way than before. It’s much more subtle. The title refers to children suffering from spina bifida (a presumably fatal birth defect where the spine is exposed) and the doctor keeps a handful of dead fetuses suffering from this in jars as a way to gain funds. He sells the rum that they pickle them in as “limbo water,” a cure for impotence, among other things. It’s a superstition based out of body horror that can be frightening, but what’s nice is that it’s essentially benign. It’s a very nice symbol for what’s at the heart of the orphanage: a g-g-g-ghost!

LG: The ghost of a child who used to be an orphan there. As someone who’s usually not scared of ghost movies in general (ghosts don’t really do anything), I have to say that  this ghost is terrifying, haunting, and beautiful, all at the same time. There’s a sort of benign quality to him right away- he’s frightening to look at, but he’s glimpsed very casually. We really don’t know quite what to make of him at first. There’s a wonderful mystery, especially since we know there are kids who have gone missing from the orphanage. One of the great things about the film is that it has a very fairytale-like feel to it. Part of that comes from rhyming imagery. The beginning and ending of the film have nearly identical images with different narration, the limbo water for the babies mirrors the fate of one of  the children who dies in an amber-lit pool.

MO: The doctor even makes reference in his narration to a ghost being like an insect stuck in amber. It’s a very arresting image. Another thing he’s always been in debt to are the classic horror filmmakers like James Whale and Hitchcock. Some of the scariest moments here are entirely because of the way Del Toro has framed the shot - the main character’s head is in a very particular position, and as soon as he moves, the ghost is revealed. It’s very classical, often playing with tropes that have been around since the 1930s, but when combined with Del Toro’s more assured visual sense it feels striking and new. 

LG: It's strange, because even though that's a pretty standard shot, it never feels like he’s going for cheap scares. Earlier this year I saw the Del Toro-produced film Mama, which is almost all loud noises and shots designed to startle instead of scare. There’s such a better sense of dread and atmosphere in this thing.

MO: Part of that comes from something that’s going to recur in Pan’s Labyrinth: the true villain isn’t a supernatural monster, but rather a very human monster by the name of Jacinto, played very well by Eduardo Noriega.

LG: Apparently a lot of people were very skeptical of Noriega’s casting. He was more famous in Spain for his telenovelas than anything else, but he’s terrifying here.

MO: Oh, he’s a complete bastard. They do find ways to make him somewhat empathetic- we feel his humanity because he’s a truly pathetic human being. He was an orphan, like most of the characters in the film, and the principal describes him as the saddest orphan there was because he never had anyone to relate to in his 15 years there. He’s a “prince without a kingdom- a man without warmth.” He has nothing to live for. He has a girlfriend, Conchita (Irene Visedo), who he doesn’t seem to like very much. He sleeps with Carmen, the head of the orphanage, because the one who truly loves her, Dr. Cesares, is impotent, but she clearly hates herself for it and pities him. We find some pity in ourselves, but for the most part he’s a man we love to hate.

LG: The other thing Del Toro’s going for here is a deconstruction for the macho stereotype that he’s never really bought into. Jacinto is the macho guy- tough, virile, emotionally guarded and here, all those qualities are made to be totally despicable.

MO: It also must be said that although Del Toro doesn’t overstate it too much, the connection to the Spanish Civil War…well, I remember when I first saw the film that I rather liked it, but felt that the Civil War material was just window-dressing that’s happening around the real plot, and it’s stuff that Jacinto takes advantage of. Near the end of the film this time around, though, I thought, “No, I’m completely wrong”. This is an almost perfect allegory for fascism (as macho and hateful as ideologies get), as Jacinto is a man who’s willing to take advantage of everything around him in order to gain power, or in this case, wealth, as there’s gold hidden away in the orphanage from the rebels. It’s not as strong a parallel as in Pan’s Labyrinth, perhaps, but it’s still quite powerful.

LG: The film is also very much about the effect of war on children. This is the first of Del Toro's films where the children feel like real characters. They’re all remarkable actors. They are all very much like boys are in real life, Del Toro is never one to sugarcoat anything, and I’m sure he related to a lot of Carlos’ bullying.

MO: Something else worth noting is how the boys all band together by the end, but that the boys can be nasty little shits before that.

LG: There’s this wonderful sequence where the boys force Carlos to go out to refill a jug of water in the dead of night, and if he’s caught, he’s going to be in a heap of trouble. He has a run-in with the ghost, but he does it, victorious! And then the boys pull out their slingshots as Carlos heads into the courtyard, break the jug, and now Carlos is in trouble for being out at night and for breaking a jug.

MO: We know that none of them are going to buy that he saw the ghost, even though they’ve talked it up for ages. And the ghost, Santi, keeps trying to communicate with them: he keeps saying that “many of you will die”, which can be interpreted as a threat, but it’s really a warning that Jacinto has something terrible planned. There’s a sense of brotherhood even after death that’s quite moving, particularly with the leader of the boys, Jaime (Inigo Garces). And he’s an interesting character- he’s someone who does not open up very easily, because he’s been hurt. We find out later that it’s because he witnessed the murder of his best friend, Santi, by Jacinto. It takes more time for him to embrace Carlos, or really any of them, because he doesn’t want to lose another friend. There’s a scene near the end, though, when he takes leadership, and it’s emblematic of the struggle against Jacinto (and, by proxy, the fascists). The other boys fear Jacinto and his cronies because “they have guns, and they’re bigger than us”, but Jaime leads them by saying that “there’s more of us”.

LG: Now, I do want to talk about the way Santi is presented. Del Toro isn’t shy about showing us Santi’s face, which is interesting, because at first he’s playing the Jaws rule of “don’t show too much too soon”, and he teases out this by showing Santi’s silhouette at first, followed by his footprints in water (sans visible feet, of course), but then we do see him fairly early on, and that’s important. His appearance is a big part of the mystery of who he is and what happened to him. The look of Santi is really influenced by J-Horror (which hadn’t quite become huge, but Del Toro is really plugged into what’s going on in horror), but he goes beyond the standard J-Horror creepy kid. Santi has a large wound in his forehead that blood pours out of in a cloud, and there’s these wonderful little silver flecks floating around him, which reminds us of the pool he died in. The story is that, in order to help light the pool, Del Toro brought little flecks of silver in that, by the third day, started corroding and showing up onscreen when they shot underwater, but Del Toro liked the look of it and incorporated it into the design. But he’s not the only ghost in the movie- as certain characters die, the hopelessness of the kids’ situation ramps up as they’re trapped by Jacinto.

MO: And I love how Del Toro ramps up the tension of that scene. He establishes the spatial dynamics very well- they’re locked in a cupboard, there’s a hallway between them and another room where the villains are trying to open up a safe where the gold might be, and the noise in that room is drowning out their escape attempts, but they’re close enough that too much noise could still be noticed.

LG: There’s a deus ex machina that gets them out (the ghost of Dr. Cesares, who dies from wounds caused by an explosion Jacinto started), but it’s one that works. In any other film, I’d be annoyed, but there’s a mystery to this that’s wonderful.

MO: Something else that I like about the film is the innocence of adolescent interest in sexuality.

LG: There’s a moment in the film where the boys are trading things, and there’s a drawing of a naked woman- which is really just a stick figure. They say that it’s anatomically correct, except that the vagina has been drawn sideways, because the kid just doesn’t know. How would he know?

MO: It’s funny, but kind of sweet in a way. There’s also a lot of sweetness in Jaime’s relationship with Jacinto’s girlfriend Conchita. He dotes on her and gives her this very plain ring- I think it’s just a cigar band- and she takes it very happily. It’s a moment of kindness that plays in direct contrast to the way the brutish Jacinto treats her, and it’s a rallying point for Jaime later on after Jacinto brings the band back to Jaime. One of my favorite shots in the film is a wide shot after Conchita confronts Jacinto and rebukes him, and she crumples to the ground as he stabs her. It’s a very moving moment, and when Jaime sees that Jacinto has brought the band back, he’s ready to strike back and lead his friends against this sadistic monster.

LG: Del Toro is very adamant that fairy tales should be dark, brutal, and violent, and lord knows we get that. The last thirty minutes in particular- the orphanage explodes, children die, the kind adults die, and it makes us really want Jacinto to get what’s coming to him. And he does. The ending isn’t triumphant, which is important, because the tone would be wrong for what’s such a mournful film.

MO: Right. They’ve been through a lot, the adults have had to sacrifice themselves, and there’s only five or six of the kids left, and Jacinto gets an appropriately brutal death.

LG: Lord of the Flies style. There’s an earlier scene where they talk about a mammoth hunt with cavemen, where the men would use sharpened sticks. Then the kids use sticks sharpened by glass, and they just ram them into Jacinto. The first one goes right into his armpit, which has a boatload of nerves, and we really feel that one.

MO: I once had to get stitches under my arm after I fell on a wine-rack. Trust me, I felt it.

LG: And as much as we hate the guy, it’s painful to watch. And we think about the acts that these children have been driven to, even though they’re doing it to save their own lives.

MO: And it’s a tribute to all of their fallen friends like Santi, who was murdered by this bastard.

LG: But what’s important is that it’s their version of a war trauma - they’ll have to live with this for the rest of their lives, and as they go off into the desert to try to find shelter, it’s a very uneasy ending.

MO: And Luppi’s narration as they go off about ghosts being stuck in time, it’s a reminder that the horrors of the Spanish Civil War will never fully disappear. Del Toro was born twenty or thirty years after they ended and in Mexico, but it really matters to him to capture the gravity of the situation.

LG: It was a very personal project for him. He’s a very intellectual guy, he studied history very closely, and he was always fascinated by the Spanish Civil War. He views it as a period of history that we’ve forgotten about completely. Europe mostly ignored it because they were trying to stay neutral, and when Europe did get dragged into war, they were too busy to deal with Spain.

MO: One minor qualm I have about the climax of the film- when Jacinto is dispatched with and thrown into the pool, Santi attacks him, and he can’t escape because he’s weighed down by gold. It’s just a bit much for me.

LG: And it’s not even enough gold for me to believe that he couldn’t overcome that, even with his injuries. But, eh, I’ll go with it. It’s a very minor thing in an extremely strong film.

MO: Oh, yeah, it’s minor. It’s not like I could think of a way to improve it, it’s his choices that have weighed him down and taken him into a monster without humanity. The symbol only slightly bothers me.

LG: I give it an A.

MO: A- from me, but it’s a high A-.

Devil's Backbone is available for streaming on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon and Xbox live. It comes out on Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray at the end of July, at which point it will likely be available on Hulu+ along with the bulk of the collection.

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