The Devil's Backbone
dir. Del Toro
Opens Fri Jan 11
Cinema 21

It's the last days of the Spanish Civil War, and a dilapidated orphanage sits in the middle of a desolate landscape. As battles rage miles away, young Carlos, the son of a once-prominent politician, is abandoned along with a group of malnourished boys, to be placed in the care of professor Càsares and headmistress Carmen. Almost at once, Carlos is subjected to a series of strange occurrences that only the innocent can accept: an unexploded bomb sits ominously in the middle of the school's courtyard; the groundskeeper is unnecessarily violent; and the ghost of a murdered boy, known only as "the one who sighs," wanders the residence, virtually ignored by all who live there.

As the director of Mimic, Cronos, and now The Devil's Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro is no stranger to the gothic horror genre. But to fully appreciate Del Toro's vision is to understand, and more importantly, respect melodrama. Though many consider melodrama to consist of villains in top hats twirling curly mustaches and forcing virgins to pay their rent, in its most pure form, melodrama deals primarily with heightened situations and emotions. And while the best melodramas require the audience to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, the acting style is always grounded in reality. Keeping that in mind, the performances in The Devil's Backbone are extraordinary, subtle, and entirely believable--even when placed in unbelievable circumstances.

And though the basic plot of Backbone may only be the stuff of a decently written young adult mystery, Del Toro wisely suffuses his script with metaphors that bring the tragedy of war down to its most basic level; that of lies, secrets, and betrayal. Each scene is painted in golden hues and sepia tones, which diminishes much of the creepiness (the ghost of the murdered boy does not rise to the scariness level of those twins in The Shining). However, the intent of this film is not to make you jump out of your seat; it is a beautifully crafted, gripping wartime tale of a community coming together to battle a common evil--and exhibit the true nature of heroism.