Sunday, January 25, 2009

Por fin

Por fin, I can be happy with Guillermo Del Toro again. Finally steeled up the nerve to watch "The Devil's Backbone" last night. I was all braced to loathe it, what with having hated "Pan's Labyrinth" and having viewed enough Spanish Civil War movies in college to kill a horse. But this 2001 film hits all the right notes. It's a good ghost story. It's a good war movie. It's scary. It's sad. It has beautiful colors. It has dead children and a teacher with a wooden leg. It has everything!

The setting is symbolically loaded: an orphanage for leftist kids during the last days of the Spanish Civil War. The director & teachers have watched, devastated, as their side has lost; their food supplies are dwindling, their options are running out, and they have all these kids with nowhere to go. The last boy to arrive is wee Carlos, who learns the orphanage has a resident ghost: that of a boy named Santi, who died violently on the premises. His ghost flickers through the bedroom and hallways at night but spends most of its time near a basement cistern. What does it want?

Unlike "Pan's Labyrinth," where you just get so exasperated with everyone you want to kick them in the shins, this movie gives you a great array of flawed, complex, identifiable characters. Even the villain has a tragic past -- he's the total opposite of the scenery-chewing fascist from "PL." All the action is all too believable. Del Toro does a great job of delineating the scorching sunlight of the external world -- where adults are, where the war is -- and the dark interior corridors of the orphanage, where Santi tries to communicate with the boys. But the two worlds inexorably overlap. The ending, in which a group of wounded boys limps haltingly out into the blinding sunlight, is both a perfect war-movie visual and a perfect ghost-story visual. He mixes the tropes just flawlessly.

And the ghost stuff is nice and scary. Santi is no Tomas, thank God, but he's plenty creepy. He's a little CGI-intensive but that's OK. All the ghost tricks you might expect, like footprints from an invisible source, the shadow of a hand that isn't there, an eye suddenly on the far side of a keyhole, are deployed so expertly. It's a pleasure to see Del Toro exercise his craft. It almost makes up for Hellboy 2.