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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Devil's Backbone
The Devil's Backbone
Columbia/Tri-Star // R // June 25, 2002
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Phillip Duncan | posted August 2, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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Isolation can cause people to do many things. When isolated from others, whether it is physically or emotionally, things begin to happen. The Devil's Backbone is a film about isolation. Others would have you believe it is a ghost story, but at its heart it is about what happens when people isolate them from the others, the world and the events around them.

The Santa Lucia School is a run down home for orphan boys. Set in the last days of the Spanish Civil War, the school is far away from the conflict and the problems at hand. The distance however, does not shield it from problems. The residents of the school must face their own set of problems.

When Carlos is forced into the school, he arrives amidst uncertain conditions and is placed in an empty bed that no one wants to explain. In the courtyard of the school sits a bomb that was dropped but never exploded. It serves metaphorically as a constant reminder of the situations in and outside of the school. Jacinto is a young man that grew up in the school and now works there. His ties to the revolution threaten all in the school as he plots to steal the gold hidden with the school walls. Fed up with his role in life he desperately wants a change and will go to any means to get it.

Another problem child living at the school is Jamie. More than the typical bully, he leads the other boys in the prosecution of Carlos when he arrives. Constantly try to get him in trouble and bringing him face to face with the ghost that haunts the school. He isolated himself from the others for a particular reason that he's not willing to easily share. Likewise, Mr. Schoolteacher has isolated himself at the school. Possessed on an unrequited love for the head mistress of the school, he keeps his feelings hidden for fear of offending her.

All of these characters have something they're not telling. Whether it's an affair, a secret, or a hidden agenda, they all have isolated themselves from the others for their benefit and protection. But like all situations, they continue to bubble and boil under the surface and will eventually explode.

The Devil's Backbone is decidedly an un-American film. Filmed by an entirely Spanish crew, it displays subtleties and defies genres that American films are usually not allowed to. In this age of definable and marketable concepts, it's a rare occasion that such films come along. It's even more rare for them to be decidedly as beautiful and emotional as The Devil's Backbone is. There's a moment in the film when Jacinto confronts his former lover, Conchita, from the school. Framed against the desert and set apart from his comrades, their confrontation is quiet, frightening and heartbreaking. Not since Saving Private Ryan has a moment in a film worked so perfectly.

Director Guillermo Del Toro shows adeptness at coaxing the most nuance of performances from his cast, half of which are the young boys. The is an innocence to the film that melds with the isolation that creates a feeling of dread as the boys edge ever closer to discover the harsh reality of life. As things come to a violent conclusion the boys must quickly assume responsibility for their actions and learn what has been hiding beneath the school for since it died.

Video: The luscious golds and blues that cinematographer Guillermo Navarro have been transferred perfectly in this wide-screen presentation. Each image in the film is framed exquisitely and is meaningful in its own right. The contrast and brightness is crisp and the transfer from the original print cleans up any flaws that may have been present in the theater. Combined with the beautiful imagery, the images in the film are inspiring in their own right.

Audio: The Dolby digital mix provides a competent soundtrack, but one that offers little enhancement. There are only two or three moments that make use of the full range of speakers and since the film is in Spanish with English subtitles, the volume of the vocals was not an issue—but they were perfectly audible. There are a few moments of creepiness and ambience that are conveyed in the surrounds, but it is an effect that is not overused.

Extras: There is a short Making Of: documentary on the disc that offers up interviews with all of the principal cast and crew. It's overly produced and offers little in the way of behind the scenes footage, but it does offer a look at director Del Toro's methods. It shows the lengths he will go to make a film unique and the techniques he used to coax the performances from his many young actors.

Also present is a commentary from the director and cinematographer. It is the first commentary—in English to boot—for the both of them. They come across as warm and engaging and offer plenty of information on the actual making of the film. Details of the making of many of the shots are revealed and Navarro talks of the difficulties faced in shooting in the desert in the day, having previously shot mostly at night. Better than most commentaries, it's worth giving a listen to.

Overall: This is a unique film that truly defies the genres that people will likely try to place it in. It has elements of romance, drama, horror and fantasy. Del Toro has crafted a screenplay and film that will enthrall and shock with the frankness it portrays the lengths that human beings will go to isolate themselves and bring themselves into contact with others that share there same goals.
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