"I like the symbolist school of painting a lot," says Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, whose new film, The Devil's Backbone, opens today. "When you construct a film around symbols, you reach a point where bigger symbols start to pop up, and you no longer have control over them." Devil's Backboneleaves a number of clues to help decipher the director's intentthat is, if you're not already seduced by its gothic Iberian charms. "When you have acts that are repeated twice, one illuminates the other," says the 37-year-old del Toro. "The story of the Spanish Civil War would illuminate a story of a ghost, and a ghost story would illuminate a war story."
Drenched in haunting amber and sepia, The Devil's Backbone, set in an all-male boarding school, is a movie del Toro has wanted to make for 16 years. Ostensibly a horror melodrama, it represents a confrontation with his own past. "My childhood was a time filled with fear, anxiety, and loneliness," says del Toro, who himself attended a Jesuit boarding school. "I had a clear sensation of death. When I was 10 years old, I was 70 years old. I was a hypochondriac, quiet child who observed the world and passed the time reading medical encyclopedias wondering what kind of incurable mortal disease I had."
Del Toro says he witnessed violent attacks on boys in his school like the ones that take place in his film. He also says he once heard the disembodied voice of his dead uncle. But while del Toro subscribes to the conventional belief that ghosts are the spirits of people who died without warning, he wants to expand the definition. "Our inadequate moments, the ones we regret, become ghosts," he says. "A ghost is the moment that you didn't have the courage to confront the school bully, when you couldn't tell the girl that you were in love with her. A ghost is a feeling that pursues you, a pending issue, a past that you've lost. It's like an insect trapped in amber."
This insect image, which appears at the beginning and end of the film, is at the crux of del Toro's cinematographic strategy. "I was inspired by Goya's Black Paintings, especially Saturn Devouring One of His Sons," he says. "He was painting a subject trapped in a profound darkness." But in The Devil's Backbone, the darkness lifts gradually, as the director takes advantage of the film's setting in arid, backwater Spain to evoke a John Ford-style western. "It interested me to do a ghost film shot in the daytime," says del Toro. "The light we shoot the ghost with becomes less gothic, less horrific, until you stop fearing the ghost and realize that you should be more afraid of the living."
Best-known for his work in commercial sci-fi/horror flicks like Cronos and Mimic, del Toro currently has in production films based on comic books like Blade 2 and Hellboy. His latest employs arty melodramatic touches that evoke Pedro Almodóvar (whose production company, El Deseo, is behind Devil's Backbone), but del Toro is resigned to the realities of a career in film: "I don't fool myself by thinking that I will always be doing personal films," he says. "Like John Huston used to say, I plan to do one for 'them,' and one for me."
Despite its high-art strategies, Devil's Backboneis most jolting when it goes for the gut. The image of Cásares, an old professor furtively drinking a rum concoction used to preserve aborted fetuses, is among the creepiest in film. The crippling condition afflicting one of the fetuses is yet another symbol, but del Toro takes pleasure in having macabre fun with it. "In China they drink serpent liquor to generate vitality and strength, in Spain they drink iguana liquor, and in Mexico they drink mescal with a worm. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they didn't have formaldehyde, so they used very old rum mixed with clove, pepper, and camphor to cure fetuses, but no one drank it. Having Cásares drink it was my idea."
J. Hobermans review of The Devil's Backbone
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