In his canonical masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, the faint pulse of brilliance throbs in Guillermo del Toro’s luxuriant, sumptuous, affectively-charged imagery. But rather than carving out room for the kind of insouciant, mordant humor and interpersonal drama permeating through his Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth is mostly content to calcify itself in a morass of symbolically-charged cues devoid of any precious room for del Toro to feel out the moment rather than smack us over the head. There’s room for such overt emotion in any filmmaker’s canon. Hell, the romantics del Toro loves (Almodovar, Douglas Sirk) practically made a career out of spinning melodramatic straw into gold that punctures the mask of subtlety and rationalism. But the sense of robust emotion as an escape from reason is too often trampelled by del Toro’s emphasis on characters as stand-ins for ideas or metaphors. The relationship between the symbols and the emotions isn’t mutualistic. Rather, the symbols parasitically enervate the characters of defiant streaks or the ability to even consider peering elsewhere beyond what the narrative has preordained for them.
A superior film of a more intimate palate, The Devil’s Backbone is not free of del Toro’s deadening impulse to be taken seriously, but it imbues itself with a supple sense of fatalism that feels less mechanically predictable than desperately, unflaggingly inevitable. A looser film than Labyrinth, this 2001 ghost story is less charged with the need for every moment to situate itself within the cocoon of meaning. The Devil’s Backbone is a similar tale of wayward children beset by the mortal turmoil of the world, but it feels hungrier, liberated to indulge its whims without any hesitance informed by the need to connect every momentary dot into a tapestry of thesis. Watching The Devil’s Backbone, much like his earlier Cronos, one sometimes feels the perverse delight of a film-crazy mad scientist gleefully run amok in the theater of cinema. Much like his idol James Whale and his masterpiece of malevolence and mischievousness, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Devil’s Backbone is able to abrogate questions of grand design or social morality with elegant, deeply felt moments of curiosity as monsters and characters alike feel out the texture of their bodies and the personalities of the world around them for the first time. The desires of these characters do not fit into a thesis, and as a rule, they force us to confront more complicated visions of existence as such.
While Pan’s Labyrinth lurched back and forth between reality and the mythic with an almost conceptual arbitrariness (as though it just had to bifurcate itself in order to convey some over-baked idea about duality), The Devil’s Backbone is less strictly regimented. Del Toro’s more mechanical, wide-screen emphasis on the panorama of a myth or a fable sit on the backburner as he engages with the more intimate contours and departures that form the character’s hearts. Much like Whale simply following the monster as he discovers the pleasure and torture of a whimper or a howl, del Toro is at his sharpest when he explores the kind of elemental primitivism that thrives in the realm of sensation and perception, not meaning. As a director, he is best when evoking the twinges and twitches of alluring sensory experience all the more radical for how they defy a purpose outside of their own essential poignancy of being.
So where do we stand? Divorced from the over-burdening narrative ticks of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone is a much more inspired tale of childhood and the supernatural amidst the backdrop of rebellion against Franco’s oppressive WWII regime. Run by Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Casares (Federico Luppi) and overseen by the adversarial, wicked Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), del Toro finds room for texture in every character in the orphanage without losing sight of the story of orphan Carlos (Fernando Tielve) and his burgeoning relationship with forgotten ghost orphan Santi (Junio Valverde). More importantly, his more focused narrative affords for time to settle in on moments of unsettled beauty and character complication that were overlooked in Pan’s Labyrinth. Carlos, for instance, is not Ophelia from Pan’s Labyrinth, a totem to innocence more than a human character. He has wants, desires, and confusions outside of his mechanical placement in the story, his status as stand-in for an ideal. The Devil’s Backbone transcends characters as drab functionaries playing by the rules, with del Toro rooting character tension, instead, in the ironic counterpoints of interpersonal relationships and etching out time to coax the gentle out of the demonic and vice-versa.
For once, del Toro also marries his baroque streak to a gust of genuine insinuation and suggestion absent in most of his films. For instance, a rust-caked, unexploded bomb lodged in the dirt in the middle of the orphanage exceeds its obvious symbolic status due to its near-absurdist quality as a statement of the perpetual existence of war. The color-match of the bomb and the dirt suggests not an invasion of war into the sanctity of the church but a symbiotic infection, the bomb infusing its brown despondency into the ground, the base of the orphanage itself. Or, alternately, the bomb may be an outgrowth of the forgotten-but-not-quite-dormant abuses and sense of neglect that festers in the orphanage’s underbelly. The orphanage may not be something violated by war but the root virus of some infernal dejection that has only recently mushroomed into full-on war-torn abjection. The presence of the bomb that should have exploded but hasn’t (along with the centrality of ghosts both literal and metaphoric in the story) inflects the film’s view of location informed by time not as a linear procession but as a dialectic of lurching movement and continual return to prior states. (This sense of time in emotional paralysis bears Del Toro’s love of classical Hollywood melodramas, which were often inscribed with a similar sense of tragic inevitably and lack of forward momentum).
Frankly, The Devil’s Backbone still doesn’t stack up favorably compared to either del Toro’s progenitors or his own, lesser-revered motion pictures where he truly takes on the mantle of the devil’s backbone. Hellboy II is definitively more geared toward del Toro’s strengths as a playful aesthetic sensualist and a jolly, impish pervert, and I would probably take the feisty, bad-tempered unabashed B-picture brio of Blade II before The Devil’s Backbone if I was able to overcome the “guilt” other cineastes might lump on me. For all their “genre” film credentials, the interplay of transcendent exultancy and irreverent sacrilege in those films is much closer to the frisky disregard for society that Nicolas Ray or Pedro Almodovar have located in their films. Comparatively, del Toro too often treats his stories as sacrosanct, as pressurized guarantees rather than suggestions or sets of guidelines to frolic within and experiment with. It is only when he finds time for a stop-over in the terrifying malarial-yellow milieu of a pool in the recesses of the orphanage, a reservoir of haunted feelings and wounds of neglect, that his film achieves something truly terrifying in its expression of moods and intuitions that supersede story. Such moments also reveal a devil lurking to shed the angelic social-moralist skin del Toro has donned, a B-picture filmmaker trapped in the body of a man who has been told he should make “serious” films.