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[whitespace] 'The Devil's Backbone'
Courtyard of Doom: Marisa Paredes and Eduardo Noriega inhabit a world haunted by fascists and ghosts in 'The Devil's Backbone.'

Agua de Limbo

In the end, the rising tide of gore swamps the mood of Guillermo del Toro's 'The Devil's Backbone'

By Richard von Busack

THE SPANIARDS and the Mexicans excel at ghost stories--how could they not, with their histories? Under Spanish producers Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Mimic) helmed this often gruesome tale about a bedeviled boys' school in the middle of the Spanish desert. The end of the fascist triumph in the Spanish Civil War is at hand, symbolized by an unexploded bomb standing sentinel in the middle of the courtyard, a dud dropped from one of Franco's planes. A political refugee kid (Fernando Tielve) arrives; the lonely boy is visited by the school's ghost, nicknamed "The Gasper," a phantom whose ectoplasmic blood still leaks into the air around him.

Those who may know about the ghost's history but aren't talking include a kindly, widowed, one-legged teacher (the handsome Marisa Paredes, from All About My Mother), a thieving fascist handyman (Eduardo Noriega) and Casares (Federico Luppi), a civilized but impotent old poet and science teacher. Because of wartime scarcity, Casares drinks the alcoholic broth from the biology lab's "pickled punks," to use the carny parlance, meaning the bottled bodies of stillborn infants. One of the dead babies is a spina bifida case, hence the film's striking but essentially irrelevant title. For what it's worth, the white-haired professor calls his drink "Agua de Limbo."

While The Devil's Backbone is full of oddity, style and atmosphere, it is--at first--so classical, it's stiff. Then the gradual rise in brutality inundates the picture, alienating those drawn by the mood, the eeriness of "The Gasper," Paredes' air of secrecy and the J. G. Ballardish sight of the rusty, totemic bomb threatening the school. Unique, certainly, but maybe just too gory for poetic horror and too poetic for gore.

The Devil's Backbone (R; 106 min.), directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz, photographed by Guillermo Navarro and starring Marisa Paredes and Fernando Tielve, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon.

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From the January 16-23, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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