Spaniards at War, Children in Fear

Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone , from a screenplay by Mr. Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz, is set on a desolate plateau in Northern Spain during the last vengeful days of the Spanish Civil War. An imposing stone building far from the nearest town serves as the Santa Lucia School, an orphanage for the children of the slain Republican militia and Loyalist politicians, and other abandoned children.

The film defines itself and its genre from the outset in the words of Càsares (Federico Luppi), an aged professor and the school’s principal: “What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain, perhaps? Something dead that appears at times alive. A sentiment suspended in time … like a blurry photograph … like an insect trapped in amber.”

The latest arrival at Santa Lucia is 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who is just recovering from his feeling of abandonment when he must face up to the bullying of Jamie (Íñigo Garcés), the oldest of the children and clearly the leader of the pathetically malnourished band of orphans. We soon discover, however, that the children are not being maliciously mistreated. Far from it, inasmuch as Santa Lucia is a labor of love by the “Reds” in charge of the institution.

Led by Càsares, who sells his own brand of elixir from a pool inside the school to the townspeople, the staff includes Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the headmistress who hobbles around on an artificial leg; Alma (Berta Ojea), another teacher; Conchita (Irene Visedo), the cook; and the virile young caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who has seduced both Conchita and Carmen and takes turns with them in the evenings. Jacinto is an embittered grown-up orphan of Santa Lucia, who hates the school that shelters him and the teachers who raised him. His greed and cruelty make him a symbolic Fascist presence in the school as he searches relentlessly for the gold rumored to be hidden somewhere on the premises.

On his very first night, Carlos is told by the other boys that he is sleeping in the bed of Santi (Junio Valverde), a boy who mysteriously disappeared on the same night an unexploded bomb landed in the school yard. The bomb still sits there as a silent reminder of the war raging outside the school. Many of the boys have heard the sighs of Santi’s ghost, but Carlos is the first boy who actually sees him.

As the film progresses, all the characters take on an allegorical signification corresponding to the tragic history of their time. Carmen, the widow of a leftist poet, hates herself for succumbing to the sexual prowess of the crypto-Fascist Jacinto, but she is tired of impotent idealist poets like her dead husband and Càsares, who loves her but cannot satisfy her sexual hunger. The impotence of Càsares is analogous to the impotence of France and England in dealing with Franco’s Fascist incursion into a Europe already trembling with fear over Hitler’s menacing gestures.

In the end, it is the boys and the boys alone who must save themselves from Jacinto’s Franco-like and Hitler-like aggressions. When Carlos discovers how Santi was actually killed, and by whom, the die is cast for a collective effort against the depredations of Jacinto that threaten them all.

It has been said that history consists of stories winners tell at the expense of losers. Yet no losers in history-except possibly the Southern Confederacy-have had their stories told so often, down to the last detail of a tangled web of betrayal and fratricide, as the Loyalists in Spain. Mr. Del Toro is clearly a man of the left, but it is to his credit that he grants even his mega-villain a moment of humility before he is destroyed. Mr. Del Toro is to be praised also for his payoffs with such props as an unexploded bomb, an artificial leg, a lecture on the prehistoric mammoth and the collective method the cavemen employed to hunt it, a face in a pool and the bloodied bandage from a ghostly medical intervention.

There is much violence in The Devil’s Backbone , but there is also catharsis and redemption. As ghost movies go, The Devil’s Backbone is much less self-indulgent than the wildly overrated The Others . Mr. Del Toro has generated powerful feelings, even in such digressions as the execution of members of the International Brigade from many nations. After each shot to the head, the emphatic Càsares is literally shaken to the core by a jolt of his own head. The process continues all the way to the end, as each of the victims deserves a jolt all his own. Mr. Del Toro enjoys an additional edge in making a historically troubled childhood the main arena for his ghost story. Children and ghosts go together like ham and cheese.

Spacek’s Set-Up

Todd Field’s In the Bedroom , from a screenplay by Rob Festinger and Mr. Field, based on a story by Andre Dubus, artfully manipulates us into becoming a lynch mob-but when the deed is done, the film turns around to make us miserable about it. Even before the opening titles are on the screen, we are set up for an almost feature-length bout with the blues. Two young people very much in love flash before us against a vernally idyllic background. Though the boy seems a little younger than the girl, we don’t yet know the age, class and marital differences that will afflict the two frolicking lovers in a Maine lobstering community. Nor do we know that their names are Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) and Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei).

But these days, even before 9/11, any two screen lovers so seemingly carefree in the first shot are doomed to disaster. You might say it’s the new cliché of a cinema in which continuing love and happiness is a big joke.

But then the movie isn’t even really about Frank and Natalie so much as it is about Frank’s parents, Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) and Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson). The couple has conflicting attitudes toward their son’s summer romance with a married woman separated from her abusively philandering husband, Richard Strout (William Mapother), and with two little boys besides. We don’t learn until much later why and how it is in Ruth’s character to be implacably opposed to her son’s summer-vacation relationship, while Matt is tolerant enough to take Natalie’s older boy out lobstering on his pleasure boat.

Much of Ruth’s time is spent rehearsing a high-school class in Balkan choral music, while Matt is engaged in his very prosperous medical practice. A doctor and a teacher in this largely blue-collar community would seem to qualify as prominent citizens, but here the cheating begins after Richard Strout shoots Frank in a fit of jealousy.

Because the now ever-whimpering Natalie refuses to testify that she actually saw the shooting, the murderer is slated to get off with a lighter sentence of manslaughter, since no one can prove that a struggle took place. Richard had trashed Natalie’s house, but the police were not called because Natalie feared the effect on her children. On another occasion, Richard had beaten up Frank, but despite his mother’s plea to call the police, Frank and Matt argued manfully that it wasn’t necessary to involve them. One wonders how the police were finally summoned after the killing.

Once the judicial machinery begins grinding, Ruth and Matt discover that they don’t have as much clout with the district attorney as the killer’s rich father, and the community doesn’t seem to care much one way or another. Meanwhile, Richard is free to resume his womanizing during the 14 months before his trial. Ruth slaps the whimpering Natalie for closure, but it does no good. Ruth blames Matt for being lenient toward their son because he got a vicarious kick from Frank’s sowing his wild oats, and Matt condemns Ruth for having been too judgmental toward Frank since Little League days. They then agree silently that the killer should not be allowed to walk around the town with impunity. We agree, hoping only that Matt isn’t caught after performing his ritual murder.

Mr. Wilkinson’s Matt bears most of the emotional burden of the situation, while Ms. Spacek’s Ruth is allowed to evade most of the obligatory scenes of grief-and thus provoke Oscar-sized raves for her restraint. For example, the scene in which Matt is about to tell Ruth that their son has been killed is not shown on-screen, thus leaving Ruth’s immediate reaction to our imagination. Well and good, but if anyone deserves an Oscar, it’s Mr. Wilkinson, who was so memorable in The Full Monty (1997) and Shakespeare in Love (1998) and is so remarkably convincing as a New Englander here. Still, I found In the Bedroom unacceptably oppressive in its “tasteful” ellipses that maximize suffering and minimize catharsis.

Weird Science

Campbell Scott’s Final , from a screenplay by Bruce McIntosh, opens as a two-character study of Bill (Dennis Leary) , a patient in a suspiciously minimalist mental ward being psychoanalyzed by Ann (Hope Davis). It’s the old joke of the seemingly paranoid patient being actually persecuted.

As a subtext-and this, too, was made before 9/11-we are presented with another dismal futuristic prophecy about disease-prone humanity. After being cryogenically frozen in a comatose condition back in 1999, Bill has thawed and wants to start living again. But “modern” science has other plans and uses for him in the midst of a devastating plague. A “final” injection will turn Bill’s body into donor-organ packets. The only question is, will Ann help Bill escape? The ending is subtler and more emotional than one would expect from this cosmically depressing premise. Mr. Leary and Ms. Davis are first-rate.