Scott Marks 9:04 a.m., March 2
Guillermo del Toro, the migrant Mexican filmmaker, returns to the place and time of his Spanish Civil War ghost story, The Devil's Backbone, more precisely post-Civil War, mid-WWII. He centers on a preadolescent girl (wide-eyed, plump-lipped Ivana Baquero) chided by her nine-months-pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil, very intense) as too old to be still filling her head with the "nonsense" of fairy tales, especially since she has moved beneath the roof of her wicked stepfather (Sergi López, campily over the top), a Francoist martinet busily stamping out rebels in the woods, who has little tolerance for a child of another bloodline but is eager to get his leather-sheathed hands on his biological baby in his wife's womb. Much more welcoming of the little girl is the mythological faun (real or imagined?), the guardian of the off-limits garden, who identifies the newcomer straight off as the prodigal daughter of the King of the Underworld (what are the odds?). Del Toro, almost in spite of himself, is not altogether guiltless of conventional, parental, puritanical strictures against fairy tales. In his scrupulous, perhaps overscrupulous, balance of dark fantasy and brutal history, tilted (politically, diplomatically) a little toward the latter, he leaves nothing to chance. He establishes the Importance of his theme through the unassailable realm of Fascists and freedom fighters, and he connects that world to the parallel universe of fairy tales in a way that can best be termed didactic, academic, studied, possibly stifling. He makes a case. He does not make magic. Far more than The Devil's Backbone, the film that keeps coming to mind, always to this one's disadvantage, is Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, 1973. That one, having in common a post-Civil War backdrop and a gullible little girl, made very much the same points, together with others, and made them more subtly, more ambiguously, more poetically; made them, moreover, while Franco was still in power; and made them without recourse to special effects beyond a Halloween get-up of Frankenstein's monster. Del Toro never lets his special effects here, some of them pretty tacky and icky, take over to the same extent as in his comic-book Hollywood movies (Blade II, Hellboy), but a mere black-gloved sadist, even with an open gash on his cheek, has a hard time holding his own against an arboreal goat-god, an insectile pixie, a featureless humanoid with eyes in the palms of his hands, an obscene giant toad, a Tim Burton-esque airless sunless tangled landscape, and so forth. 2006.
- Rated R
- "The Mexican Connection" • January 11, 2007