Like the French action film Brotherhood of the Wolf, another foreign import currently gracing local screens, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's Spanish ghost tale The Devil's Backbone gleefully eradicates genre barriers. But where Brotherhood of the Wolf is insanely (ineptly?) gonzo, del Toro's film is sublimely elegant and controlled -- a deft mix of ghost story, childhood adventure, and political history.
This carefully paced, sun-dappled thriller takes place during the latter stages of the Spanish Civil War at a rural school/orphanage that shelters the children of Republican militia members. The orphanage itself may well be the film's most compelling character, with its cavernous sleeping quarters, creaky corridors, and creepy, secret-laden subregions all radiating from an unexploded bomb lodged in the school's courtyard. We see the bomb fall in the film's knockout opening shot and are later told that it has been defused, but the boys at the orphanage don't believe it --they claim you can hear its heart ticking.
The film's opening juxtaposes the bomb's release from a plane with the sight of an injured boy at the orphanage seemingly dumped into a well by a friend. The film then flashes forward, though at first we're not sure how far, to a new child, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), being deposited at the orphanage.
As Carlos struggles to fit in at the orphanage, we learn about some of the place's secrets. There's the ghost of the boy -- Santi, whose bed Carlos inherits -- who died the night of the bombing; there's the bizarre Oedipal triangle that exists between the orphanage's three primary adult residents -- one-legged headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), elderly doctor Cásares (Federico Luppi), and angry young caretaker (and orphanage graduate) Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega); and there's a stash of gold, meant to help finance "the cause," hidden in a kitchen safe.
Despite the historical setting, del Toro keeps the politics continually present but relatively subtle. There's an air of dread surrounding the school as the leftist patrons feel the war slipping away. When Carmen decorates the school with religious iconography in an attempt to disguise it as a Catholic school, Cásares remarks, "Jesus Christ out there and John the Baptist in here. Are things that bad?" Later, Cásares makes a trip to town and witnesses the execution of members of the international brigade, a sight that leads to an attempt to flee the orphanage. And the film's final confrontation, while not explicitly symbolic, pits individualistic greed against communal interaction in a manner that mimics the larger duel of fascist and Marxist foes.
The boys themselves -- who do not know that their fathers have died on the front -- show an unsure grasp of the larger historical forces around them, some thinking that the war is cool because of all the bright lights and big noises, even though an older kid counters angrily that "the war is shit." And, in fact, some of the film's most assured and compelling scenes concern the smaller world that the boys have created for themselves, such as a virtuoso hazing scene in which Carlos is sent out late at night to sneak water from the orphanage kitchen.
The Devil's Backbone is del Toro's third feature, following his well-regarded Mexican vampire flick Cronos and his stylish American horror film Mimic. Part Lars Von Trier (especially the Danish director's hospital-set haunted house series The Kingdom), part Luis Bunuel (the black comedy and anti-religious gibes), and a lot Edgar Allen Poe, del Toro shows a remarkably sure hand at juggling different elements.
In the end, the film's supernatural elements may not play out in the way one expects. "What is a ghost," an opening voiceover asks before immediately providing an answer: "A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?" As Spanish democracy crumbles around this group of orphaned children and aging and crippled protectors, the school itself seems as much a tragic ghost as the diminutive poltergeist that haunts its halls, and the real monsters turn out to be very alive and very human.
The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition may be a modest feat of filmmaking that would be just as at home on television, but the story it tells is so astonishing and the still photographs and 35-millimeter footage that miraculously survived is so fascinating, it more than earns its big-screen release. The Endurance is a 90-minute documentary about a 22-month odyssey; the film's narrator (Liam Neeson) calls it "the last great journey during the heroic age of discovery."
In 1914, after failing in two previous attempts to reach the South Pole (and finally seeing another explorer reach that goal), British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton began to assemble a crew for "the last great terrestrial prize": crossing the entirety of the Antarctic on foot. Shackleton's call for men read: "Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." According to the film, Shackleton drew his 27-man crew from over 5,000 respondents.
Among the crew was Australian photographer and cinematographer Frank Hurley, many of whose photographs and film footage survived the trip. It's this incredible footage -- released in 1919 and rereleased in 1994 (as the silent documentary South) --that makes the documentary special.
Shackleton and his crew (which included 69 Canadian sled dogs brought to help them cross the continent once they reached it) made their final departure from South Georgia Island in the Weddell Sea in December 1914. The expedition's ship, The Endurance, had to negotiate a thousand-mile tangle of floes (chunks of ice) and leads (water paths between the floes) through the frozen sea, a distance of roughly 900 miles when the floes began to thicken and the pace slowed. The expedition found itself stuck in the ice only one day's sail from the mainland.
The crew stayed aboard for seven months until shifting ice threatened the ship. Forced to abandon The Endurance, they set up "Ocean Camp" on a floe that was essentially a huge ice raft only 5 feet thick. Stranded for months on the floe, the men entertained themselves with a host of activities (all captured by Hurley either on film or still photograph), including soccer games on ice, putting on plays, haircutting tournaments, and "weekly gramophone concerts." A month after abandoning ship, The Endurance sank and the mission changed from crossing the Antarctic to merely surviving. The next nine months -- hauling 2,000-pound, supply-packed lifeboats over increasingly thin ice floes, negotiating a small boat though a hurricane, traversing unexplored glacial mountains by foot -- was more harrowing and exciting than any fictional account you can imagine.
At one point, the food rations were down to one frozen biscuit per day per man, a meal described in one crew member's diary as "You look at it for breakfast, you suck it for lunch, and you eat it for dinner." Another man had his upper lip ripped off after attempting to drink from a frozen metal cup, but his fate was preferable to that of the expedition's canine enlistees.
With such an enthralling story and with Hurley's surviving footage, it would be hard for The Endurance not to be engaging, and director George Butler does a fine job organizing his storytelling resources, which also include selections from crew diaries, interviews with children, grandchildren, and other relatives of the crew, and new Antarctic footage that retraces the steps of Shackleton's expedition. The film also does a subtle job placing the journey in historical context, reminding the audience that these men were lost for almost two years and returned to civilization in the midst of the Great War -- and that many of them immediately joined the war effort.
If the film has a flaw it's that it doesn't properly explore Shackleton's motivation for the trip beyond citing "because it was there" romanticism. The film hints that Winston Churchill was rather dismissive of the expedition, and though the story is indeed spectacular, the film offers no reason for the viewer to contest this view. The motivation seems especially odd when we learn, at the end of the film, that Shackleton set off for another attempt soon after. (He died of a heart attack on South Georgia Island before his departure in the great, icy sea.) Noble explorer or megalomaniacal madman worthy of a Werner Herzog film? Either way, Shackleton's journey is one you won't want to miss.