Subtlety is not a virtue. It’s useful, certainly, but is in no way a metric by which all films can or should be judged. Guillermo Del Toro’s work makes this abundantly clear, at least if it’s taken seriously. Recently, here at Film.com, Vadim Rizov ranked all eight of the director’s films. The governing theory of the list is that, essentially, Del Toro is not a very good filmmaker. Sitting at #1 is “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” which Rizov praises for being well-choreographed “frivolous spectacle” that “finally defeat[s] the mild fascism of ‘motivation.’” The films that are actually about Fascism, “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” are way down at the bottom of the list, mostly for not being very subtle.
So, what’s the value of subtlety? The contention of Rizov’s list is that “The Devil’s Backbone,” which The Criterion Collection will release in deluxe DVD and Blu-ray editions tomorrow, is bad because it has too many “easily decipherable symbols.” To be fair, it certainly has a lot of them. The film is set in a boarding school in rural Spain, in the later years of the Spanish Civil War. The last remaining teachers, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), are Leftists watching Franco and his Nationalists close in on the Republic from afar. Most of the boys have Leftist parents as well, many of them presumably orphaned by the war. Finally there’s Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a violent and frustrated young man who grew up at the school but has rejected its ideals to become a metaphor for the entirety of Spanish Fascism.
And Jacinto is only the most immediately charismatic part of the allegory. From the opening voiceover monologue about the nature of ghosts, the metaphors are pretty hard to miss. The largest, an unexploded bomb, practically assaults you with its bulky import. The ineffectuality of old, Left-wing intellectual society is represented by Carmen’s false leg and Dr. Casares’s impotence. One could go on and on, listing the large handful of easily identifiable symbols. Yet, maybe, this is simply a different way of creating meaning.
First of all, there’s something almost foolhardy about expecting subtlety from a horror film. The genre’s symbols tend to be loud, shrieking things that drive home whatever point the director may be making like a stake to the heart. Even the most universally praised classics waste little time on obliquely presenting their themes. “Rosemary’s Baby” is about as subtle as Catholic television. Yet the sensation of fear is able to mask and mitigate the noise of a film’s themes when oblique and confusing subtlety isn’t there to do the job. Horror filmmakers, simply put, have more exciting things to worry about than trying to hide their themes and ideas.
There’s more going on in “The Devil’s Backbone” than any simple 1-to-1 ratio of metaphor and meaning. Many recent thrillers, especially those with a bent toward the supernatural, have gone in the direction of excessive signification. “Black Swan” comes to mind, or “The Orphanage.” Many symbols have an initial, obvious purpose that might seem bland at first. Yet often there are simultaneous, equally valid interpretations encouraged by the film.
Dr. Casares has jars of rum-preserved, miscarried fetuses in his lab, the liquid of which he sells to superstitious villagers. On the one hand, the jars themselves tie into the stasis symbolism of the unexploded bomb and the ghost, stuck in the horror of the Spanish Civil War. However, there is an ambivalence about the role of the Leftist intellectual in these images as well, an uncertainty around modern science’s role in the wars of the 20th century and the beginnings of a dark evaluation of wartime morality.
Then there’s the film’s treatment of Fascism. I would argue that it’s almost impossible to actually deal with the social and cultural character of European Fascism and still retain any real commitment to subtlety, though it has been done. Many of the best films to confront it have been exceedingly bold and over-the-top; Fellini’s “Amarcord” is an illustrative and extraordinary example. In that context, the character of Jacinto in “The Devil’s Backbone” is almost on the softer end of things. Noriega’s performance is right on point, tapping into 1930s nationalism’s obsession with virility. He’s violent, quick-to-anger and smoldering with such physical intensity that his secret and frantically sexual relationship with Carmen comes not as a shock but almost as a relief. Yet he is also petulant and childish, the beautiful and furious man-child that is at the psychological core of European Fascism.
Finally, Del Toro’s central question is one with implications well beyond the Spanish Civil War. The film opens with speculation in voice over: “What is a ghost?” The answer is multiple, but the core suggestion is that of a tragic event trapped in time. Like the unexploded bomb and those rum-soaked fetuses, the mystery at the core of “The Devil’s Backbone” is that of a young boy whose life was taken abruptly and traumatically. Yet this understanding of spiritual stasis is a very open-ended one. The opening monologue isn’t just about ghosts, but is also perhaps about cinema itself.
The Spanish Civil War happened an awfully long time ago, after all. So did the Mexican Revolution, which was the setting of Del Toro’s first draft of this screenplay. It’s not as if “The Devil’s Backbone” is a completely thorough and accurate distillation of the period, its agonies and its anxieties. Both this film and “Pan’s Labyrinth” take place in very isolated environments, heavily symbolic locales that evoke the politically charged landscapes of Carlos Saura (“The Hunt” in particular) and others.
Del Toro is getting at the preservation of a mood, one that is relevant well beyond its historical boundaries. Moreover, he is equally fascinated by cinema’s own ability to do that in the first place. Maybe that’s simply another connection to his “deep-geek genre immersion,” a giddy love of the profession in which he has found himself. If that’s true, fine. But there’s more to “The Devil’s Backbone” than the surface of its images, and for that it has been welcomed into the Criterion Collection.
THE TRANSFER: As Del Toro says on the disc, "This is 'The Devil's Backbone' as the devil intended it to be seen." The video quality of the Blu-ray is verifiably insane. The colors are vivid and intense, but never rendered artificial by a digital gloss. The transfer is consistent, filmic and flawless, especially (and crucially) successful in regards to the clarity of the nighttime scenes.
THE EXTRAS: Guillermo Del Toro wants to invite you inside the world of his movies, and nowhere is that more apparent than it is on this disc. There is an extraordinary amount of care and attention afforded to every detail in his films, and he's always giddy to share this stuff with his audience. Naturally, that makes for one hell of a Criterion release, and Del Toro's enthusiasm is clear right from the video introduction he recorded for the disc.
The first featurette is "Summoning Spirits," a one-sided 13-minute video interview with Del Toro where he chats about the design of the Santi character, focusing on his cracked skin. Interesting stuff, and enough to make you regret the use of archaic CG during a couple of key moments.
"Que es un Fantasma?" is a 27-minute doc that's been ported over from the 2004 DVD (the audio commentary included on this disc, while riveting and contagiously enthusiastic, is also borrowed from that older home video release). More involved than a typical EPK, but Criterion's lack of involvement is obvious. "Spanish Gothic" is a 17-minute featurette, recorded in 2010, explores the influence of the Spanish Gothic genre on both "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth". This clip contains a wealth of fun information for hardcore fans, beginning with Del Toro revealing how "The Devil's Backbone" originally referred to a Mexican mountain range of the same name (the film was ultimately rewritten because he couldn't find suitable terrain on which to shoot the film).
"Designing 'The Devil's Backbone'" is exactly what it sounds like, starting with Del Toro talking about how he wanted the bomb to represent a fertility goddess and going from there. It's unfiltered Del Toro, and it's wonderful. Equally interesting but much less expected is "A War of Values", a 14-minute video interview with Spanish Civil War scholar Sebastiaan Faber, who provides a quick history lesson and discusses the extent to which the conflict informed Del Toro's film. It makes for crucial context. The disc includes four deleted scenes, all of which were cut for good reason (and none of which have been restored). In all, they total less than four minutes. Finally, the expected highlight delivers
THE ARTWORK: Guy Davis' cover art (not designed by Mike Mignola, as approximately everyone suspects upon first glance) beautifully folds all of the film's signature visuals into one grim and appropriately haunted illustration.
SCORE: 8.2 / 10
The Criterion Collection will release "The Devil's Backbone" on DVD & Blu-ray on 7/30/2013.