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The Devil's Backbone

(2000) *** 1/2 R
106 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega.

/content/films/4555/1.jpgGuillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone begins by dropping a bombshell. The ghost story that follows literally revolves around that bombshell, which whispers claim may still be live and ticking as it sits in the center of an orphanage's courtyard. Rumor abounds as a venial form of superstition, a greater social force that is, in the world of the film, ironically more than paranoiac fancy. Rumors—some true, some false—dance with secrets, science parries with religion, and military Nationalists put the squeeze on leftist Loyalists as a boy's innocence gives way to harsh experience.

In 1939, during the final week of the Spanish Civil War, twelve-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at an orphanage in the Spanish desert. Despite a series of betrayals by those in whom he has put his trust, Carlos remains an open soul, and strikes up unlikely relationships with bully Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) and the home's doctor, Casares (Federico Luppi). The unlikeliest friendship of all develops between Carlos and Santi (Junio Valverde), the skull-cracked ghost of a murdered orphan boy. The secret of Santi's death forms the film's central mystery—and metaphor, as laid out in the film's framing narration by Casares: "What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead that still seems to be alive. An emotion, suspended in time..."

Of course, the Spanish Civil War is, too, a past that will not rest in peace. Del Toro's allegory positions orphanage administrator Carmen (Marisa Paredes), along with Casares, as representatives of the left, and hardened, ashamed former orphan Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega)—the home's threatening "caretaker"—as representative of the fascist right. Del Toro's Spanish Gothic sibling to his 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth appropriately weds elements of horror and twisted romance, with overlapping romantic relationships amongst the adult characters (also including Jacinto's fiancée Conchita, played by Irene Visedo).

The Devil's Backbone is pure, uncut del Toro. The filmmaker accomplishes riveting scenes of suspense and scares he honestly come by, sticking the landing of every effect he attempts. Design, as always with del Toro, is paramount and elegant, from the well-considered mise-en-scène of the courtyard (with central bomb like a mocking perversion of a fountain in a town plaza), the bunkhouse, the catacomb-like cellar to the fabulous ghost makeup, enhanced by special effects to have blood smokily floating out of Santi's head wound.

Happily, del Toro's after more than just genre goosing: in addition to the reflection on the lingering impact of the Spanish Civil War, he engages in philosophical struggle from the points of view of a growing boy and an old man, the latter a self-professed man of science who's also given to poetry and an apparent superstitious agnosticism, and the former learning from the old man the importance of defining his maturation by taking a moral posture that demonstrates his full height, even in the shadow of Goliath.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/30/2013

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Criterion gives The Devil's Backbone its Blu-ray debut in a special edition that features a new transfer sourced from the 35mm camera negative and approved by both director Guillermo del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Not surprisingly, the results are terrific: a clean and clear image that has perfectly calibrated contrast, greatly improved detail and truer color without tinkering with the essential filmic character of the picture; quite the contrary, texture is one of the highlights of this transfer, in the environments and costumes but also in the natural film grain. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a fantastic job of discretely placing each spine-tingling sound effect for maximum ambience; dialogue is also crystal clear (and, of course, subtitled) and the score full-bodied.

As del Toro's fans have come to expect, the film comes with a comprehensive collection of extras that stands up to any special edition on the market. First, there's a fascinating audio commentary featuring Del Toro, as well as a 2010 video "Introduction" by the filmmaker (:48, HD). In a Blu-exclusive viewing option, one can also see Del Toro's Thumbnails during playback.

Del Toro is also front and center in three interview featurettes: the new "Summoning Spirits" (13:47, HD) focuses on the design and execution of "the one who sighs"; the 2010 piece "Spanish Gothic" (17:55, HD) covers the film's origin, development, literate style, and place alongside Pan's Labyrinth; and the new "Designing The Devil's Backbone" (11:57, HD) concerns overall production design.

The 2004 making-of documentary "¿Que es un fantasma?" (27:18, HD) includes interviews with del Toro, co-writer Antonio Trashorras, Navarro, art director Cesar Macarron, unit production manager Esther Garcia, make-up effects designers David Marti and Montse Ribe, and actors Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Fernando Tielve, and Federico Luppi.

Four "Deleted Scenes" (3:36, HD) come with commentary by del Toro.

"A War of Values" (14:07, HD) is a marvelous interview with scholar Sebastiaan Faber that amounts to a video essay, one discussing and illustrating the film’s commentary on the Spanish Civil War.

Also on hand are an interactive "Director’s Notebook" (9:05, HD)—a concept gallery with branching del Toro-interview video pods—and "Sketch, Storyboard, Screen" (12:03, HD), which compiles six video pieces (prepared in 2004) that compare Del Toro’s thumbnail sketches and Carlos Giménez’s storyboards with the final film: Prologue and Opening Credits, Sleeping Quarters, The Bomb, The Ribbon, Keyhole, and "Who are you?"

Rounding out the disc is the film's "Trailer" (2:06, HD), and Criterion's customary booklet includes credits, tech specs, and an essay by critic Mark Kermode.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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