By Sebastian Wurzrainer ’20
I’m going to take a slight risk and predict well beforehand that Guillermo Del Toro will win the Best Director award on March 4 during the 90th Academy Awards. Naturally, such a prediction brings with it a host of incumbent claims and concerns. For instance, usually the winner of Best Director is a pretty good indicator of which film will win Best Picture at the end of the evening. Given that The Shape of Water (screening in Dartmouth’s Loew Auditorium on Friday, Feburary 23) has an astonishing 13 Nominations, I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if it took home the big prize. That said, this year is somewhat unique in so far as it’s the first time in a while that there doesn’t seem to be an obvious front runner (it should be noted that obvious front runners don’t always win). I frankly wouldn’t be shocked if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Dunkirk or Lady Bird won instead. Moreover, I’d argue that even if The Shape of Water does win, it isn’t the best film from last year. One of the best, sure. But not the best.
And yet I still want it to win. Why is that? The important thing to keep in mind here is that these awards aren’t just about the films themselves. For example, Roger Deakins’ cinematography for Blade Runner 2049 certainly deserves to win the Oscar. But if he does win (and I hope he does), it will also be compensation for all the times he lost unfairly. Likewise, Del Toro’s nomination and the success of The Shape of Water has just as much to do with his legacy as a filmmaker as it does with the actual film itself.
Don’t get me wrong, The Shape of Water is beautiful. Like most of his work, it is profoundly moving, beautifully acted, well-written, and directed with style. But Del Toro has a collection of similarly wonderful films to his name; he’s spent years establishing himself as one of the most unique and magical voices in modern cinema. Why The Shape of Water has struck a chord with the Awards folk in a way his other films didn’t, I can’t determine, but it’s one of the reasons why I think he deserves everything coming his way right now.
With that in mind, I figure now might be a good time to reminisce ever so briefly about one of Del Toro’s masterpieces which seems to have practically been forgotten. In a September review of The Shape of Water for The Dartmouth, I wrote: “The Shape of Water is perhaps best understood as a cap to a thematic trilogy that began with The Devil’s Backbone and continued with Pan’s Labyrinth. All three films fuse fairy tale narratives and period-piece war stories together, highlighting the connections they share to illustrate what does and does not work about each.” I stand by this assessment, and although Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my five favorite films of all time, it’s already been analyzed to death. Yet no one really talks about The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Mexico 2001) anymore.
Set during the final year of the Spanish Civil War, 1939, the film takes place in a Republican-supported boys’ orphanage run by Carmen, a disabled woman with only one leg, and Dr. Casares, a kindly old man with a surprising romantic side. Carlos, a young boy whose father has just sacrificed his life for the Republicans, is placed in the orphanage and quickly runs afoul of Jaime, the leader of the orphans. Jaime seems particularly perturbed by Carlos’s unusual connection with “the one who whispers,” which turns out to be the ghost of Santi, a boy who died on the same day the fascists dropped a bomb on the orphanage – a bomb that never detonated.
Even as I write this synopsis, I realize how much I must omit for the sake of brevity. Many have remarked on Pan’s Labyrinth’s dual structure, intertwining protagonist Ofelia’s descent (or ascent) into the fantasy kingdom with her stepfather Captain Vidal’s efforts to stomp out the last remaining Republicans. Although shorter, The Devil’s Backbone is arguably even more convoluted, frequently featuring subplots about Casares’s unrequited love for Carmen, the orphanage’s integral role in the fight against fascism, and a romantic conflict between a timid teacher named Conchita and the vicious groundskeeper Jacinto. Lest these subplots sound like they bog the film down, I want to clarify that they don’t. Instead, they allow Del Toro to craft a rich, mesmerizing tapestry within a film that chooses to treat every character with a degree of humanity.
In an interview with Mark Kermode, Del Toro tells the following story: When he was a young child, he would see monsters in his room at night. Too afraid to use the restroom, he would wet the bed over and over again and resultantly get punished over and over again. Finally, Del Toro claims, he stood up to the monsters and promised to be their friend for life if only they allowed him to pee. They accepted the offer.
To me, at least, this story manages to encapsulate all that is so wonderful and pure about Del Toro’s cinema. Many have claimed that The Devil’s Backbone is a horror film, and perhaps it is, if a film featuring a ghost must be labeled as such. Yet the ghost here is no malevolent spirit; he’s just a boy who wants retribution for his death. He is, as the film reiterates throughout, like a fly trapped in amber, caught and suspended between this world and the next. As far as Del Toro seems to be concerned, the monsters are never the true villains. Likewise, the true villains are never completely monstrous. Santi may look scary, but his motives aren’t nefarious. Jacinto, on the other hand, may be the story’s true force of evil, but he is still granted a backstory. Del Toro’s work constantly tries to undercut the fascist ideology valorized by characters like Jacinto; it seems that there is nothing this director fears more than authoritarianism. That said, he also wisely explores why such horrific ideologies can be appealing to some. He certainly never forgives his worst characters for their sins, but he does allow them to have their reasons. Despite the plethora of crazy creatures that populate his world, Del Toro’s humanist center feels directly drawn from the a famous quote from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.” In Del Toro’s world, even monsters are permitted their reasons.
Of course, it helps that all of these characters, monsters and humans, feel real, compelling and are impeccably acted. The child actors are all natural, lending an air of authenticity to this fantastical story. Eduardo Noriega is suitably chilling as Jacinto, though he lacks the steely gaze and commanding presence of his Del Torian ancestor, Captain Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth. The real standouts, though, are Irene Visedo as Conchita and Federico Luppi as Dr. Casares. Conchita’s character arc is mostly left in the background, but after multiple viewings, it proves to be one of the most compelling aspects of the story. Casares is a somewhat more pivotal character and remains one of the most sympathetic fictional creations I’ve seen in any artistic medium, in no small part thanks to Luppi’s tenderness.
An astute reader might wisely wonder why I’ve chosen to focus on an obscure Del Toro film from 2001 in preparation for The Shape of Water. Why not just discuss The Shape of Water? On the one hand, having already written a review for The Shape of Water, I feel as though I have, for the moment, exhausted everything I have to say about it. On the other hand, it seemed to me that if Del Toro wins Best Director, it will have been well worth everyone’s time to recall the career that we will all be celebrating in that moment. As mentioned above, The Shape of Water may not be the year’s best film, but I’m glad that someone at the Academy finally realized that Del Toro’s dearth of nominations was an oversight that sorely needed to be remedied. In the meantime, enjoy The Shape of Water in all of its splendor. It is truly refreshing cinema. But spare a thought for The Devil’s Backbone as you do, because if you happen to watch it, you might find yourself drawn into something altogether more wonderful, mysterious and achingly human.