The Devil’s Backbone–Peter Pan meets “The Shape of Water”

Devil's Backbone

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) (Spanish: El espinazo del diablo), directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, was independently produced by Pedro Almodóvar and foreshadows his Academy Award winning “The Shape of Water” (see my March 19, 2018 review).

Set in 1939 during the final year of the Spanish Civil War, we see in the opening scene an orphanage in the middle of a solitary dessert. A deactivated bomb is standing in the courtyard.

An unexpecting twelve- year-old, Carlos, is left by his guardian and almost immediately bullied by two other orphan boys. On a dare to sneak to the kitchen for water, Carlos hears a chilling whisper from an unknown ghost, Santi, appearing as a boy about the same age.

This is a mythic tale of love and revenge, greed, the loss of family, mixed with a potent dose of magical realism del Toro conveys in all of his films (including his masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth”.) Carlos, who fearlessly wants to know the truth, and Santi, whose demise is shrouded in mystery, eventually make a pact. As the war begins closing in on the orphanage, violence and desperation erupt and Santi’s prediction comes true. The abandoned boys must band together if they hope to survive.

Dr. Caseres shows Carlos how the orphanage raises funds: by selling a spiced fluid preserved from deformed aborted or stillborn fetuses that “remedies” many ailments including impotence. The exposed fetuses in fluid are “the devil’s backbone”, an elixir with miraculous power. A visual metaphor illustrating how war entraps, just like insects in amber and fetuses in jars, The Devil’s Backbone exposes the horrors of war and fascism through the lens of fantasy.

This film, after a sagging middle with slow camera movements leading nowhere but to the orphanage basement, eventually evolves into an extraordinary dramatic narrative of tension and dread. It is a coming-of-age story combined with a tale of enormous deception resulting from misjudging human character.

Fantastic cinematography, –some sepia-toned scenes evoking the lighting of a Velasquez painting,– is well-worth viewing on its own merits. The opening underwater sequences will remind the viewer of del Toro’s later cinematic undertaking, “The Shape of Water”. The mark of del Toro is everywhere in evidence. Watching The Devil’s Backbone now within the context of having seen “The Shape of Water” allows a glimpse into the imagination of a very original filmmaker!

 

The Shape of Water–E.T. Meets Aqua Man

 

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2018  Academy Award for Best Picture) is written and directed by the Mexican wunderkind, Guillermo del Toro (of “Pan’s Labyrinth”). Part-fantasy, part-political commentary, and part-love story, “The Shape of Water” is difficult to categorize.   The Shape of Water, an adult fairy tale of sorts, is both deeply familiar and suggests magical realism.

The opening scene, an aquatic beneath-the-sea dreamscape, leads us into a floating world of teal green water, gliding past chairs, lamps and tables, all swirling in the interior of the flooded apartment of Eliza, a mute janitor (the awesome Sally Hawkins), who lives a very spartan and lonely life.  The Shape of Water

Set during the Cold War, an alien aqueous creature worshipped as a god in the Amazon, has been captured for weapons research and is subsequently mistreated in a top-secret military research lab in a race against Russian scientists. The addition of a sensitive Russian biologist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name”,”The Post” and “Fargo”) , who recognizes the humanity of the amphibious anomaly, gives a surprising twist to the Cold War plot.

In The Shape of Waterthe damage is more psychological than physical.  Eliza’s face has been inexplicably burned some time in her past. Both she and the underwater sea creature, as well as her friends, are outcasts in a cruel, unforgiving world. “The others” — those with ethnic, racial and class differences, gays, the disabled, communists— are outsiders and misfits like Aqua Man. The way those “others” are woven together is a minor wonder and a parable for resisting authoritarianism and valuing diversity.

Because of her muteness, Elisa is looked at by others as something less than fully human, a type of alien herself. Her interest in the Aqua Man evolves into a deeply empathetic relationship, stirred less by curiosity than by recognition and identification with his plight. Think ET–an innocent befriending an alien.

Her neighbor Giles (in a wonderful performance by Richard Jenkins), a gay struggling aging artist , and Zelda (a sometimes hilarious Octavia Spencer), her co-worker on the cleaning crew, are her only social connections. Until she meets the Amazon amphibian.

Scientists in lab coats and military officers march officiously past their cleaning carts, rendering Elisa and her friend Zelda invisible at best and insulted more than occasionally. Richard Strickland (an always astonishing Michael Shannon), who is a government official in charge of the research project, carries an electric cattle prod, urinates in front of Eliza and Zelda, and genuinely enjoys sadism towards the Aqua Man. Now who is the monster, the dangerous alien?

Tension builds as one of the Russian research scientists is ordered to assassinate the amphibious creature before the Americans do. Here The Shape of Water pivots from a spy thriller with an ET vibe to a hodge-podge of 1940’s dance musicals (“La La Land” anyone?) and old film clips of musical numbers starring Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and the Glenn Miller Orchestra among others. What happened to the main story? This not only didn’t hold this viewer’s attention but was a major disconnect.

Sadly, Shape of Water does not represent storytelling at its best. The drama is derivative of ET, and while water is ever changing in its shapelessness, only Elisa brings enough form and feeling to allow us to disavow the plot holes, offkilter sidetracking, and lack of backstory to understand some of the other major characters’ flaws.

Nonetheless, this is a career high for Sally Hawkins, who must   communicate emotion with sheer physicality, since she plays a mute woman. And her performance is extraordinary.

Worth watching for Sally Hawkins and her colleagues Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins. Not so much for the story!