The One Who Signs

Cronos, The Devil’s Backcone, Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro

The Devil’s Backbone, the second of three early films by the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, which have been released as a Criterion boxed set, opens in an isolated orphanage in the final months of the Spanish Civil War. The children are there because their parents are “fallen comrades” who have died fighting Franco’s fascists. The opening sequence introduces us to the film’s child protagonist, Carlos, a bookish boy who is one of del Toro’s pure innocents. Almost immediately he encounters the ghost of Santi, a previous orphan, who will not rest until he exacts vengeance on Jacinto, the man who murdered him. (The fact that Santi has something in common with Old Hamlet in the ferocity of his vengeance is an example of how susceptible the child’s world is to ours.) In describing the sound the ghost makes when he appears, Carlos calls him “the one who sighs.” Guillermo del Toro, the director who has named these characters and assigned them into action, could easily be called “the one who signs,” so overflowing is his cinema with symbols.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is a gothic romance, replete with the characteristics of the genre, which developed as a literary form in the 19th century. Del Toro is an obsessive autodidact who admits to being entranced by the idea of mixing genres that cross from one style to another. If this film combines romance and a ghost story, Cronos (1993), the first of the trilogy, is a vampire story crossed with a redemption myth, while Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) links the fairy tale with historical events of inexplicable depravity.

Among the three films, The Devil’s Backbone presents the purest innocent in the endlessly forgiving Carlos, and the second most malevolent villain in Jacinto. The wickedest character of all is Captain Vidal, a psychopathic military commander who is hunting guerrilla rebels in Pan’s Labyrinth. Apart from his vicious and cold-blooded execution of two farmers he wrongly suspects of being communists, and the delight he takes in tormenting and torturing prisoners, men and women alike, del Toro gives him another distinctly nasty dimension. In addition to being a murderous fascist, Vidal is a small-scale Nazi wannabe. At a dinner party at which he is explaining the food rationing system, he corrects one of his guests who assumes his posting in the mountains is a disagreeable one: “I choose to live here because I want my son to be born in a new, clean Spain,” and he goes on to indicate what will be necessary to achieve the country of his patriarchal dreams. “The war is over and we won. And if we need to kill every one of these vermin to settle it, then we’ll kill them all, and that’s that.” A language of vermin and annihilation is familiar and it resonates far outside the concentrated theatre of the Spanish Civil War.

The dinner party also affords del Toro an opportunity to target the Catholic Church. The local priest is happy to accept Vidal’s relentless plan. “God has already saved their souls,” he says, loading his plate with food from the sumptuous table. “What happens to their bodies hardly matters to Him.” The orphans in The Devil’s Backbone have their own take on the punishing excesses of Catholicism. They are sent to the courtyard to move religious statues and, when lifting a crucifix, Galvez says to Carlos, “Shit, for a dead guy, he sure weighs a shitload.” What comes from the mouths of babes before they’re washed out with religious soap is telling.

But del Toro is not through with Vidal and his pathologies. Late in the film, a captured guerrilla is being tortured by the captain and he tells Doctor Ferreiro to revive him so that the interrogation can continue. The doctor is a Republican collaborator, and instead of keeping the prisoner alive, he gives him the gift of an injected death. When asked why his orders weren’t obeyed, Ferreiro’s response is a repudiation of the defence used by Nazi war criminals who argued they were simply good soldiers, doing as they were told. “To obey just like that, without questioning,” the doctor says, “that’s something only people like you can do, Captain.” He pays for his mercy with his own life, but his defiance and courage remain as memories in the film. When it comes to morality, del Toro is not a fantasist but a proselytizer and a devotee.

The imprint of the monstrous presses upon the underworld as well, where Ofelia, the child innocent in Pan’s Labyrinth, encounters a flesh-eating albino demon called the Pale Man. He, too, sits at a banquet table, in a vaulted room with painted scenes that show him dismembering and devouring children. On the floor is a large mound of small shoes, not unlike the accumulations we have seen in photographs taken in the Death Camps. The Pale Man hovers over a plate on which sit his eyes, like a grotesque inversion of Santa Lucia, the martyr who was blinded by a spurned suitor. Del Toro finds in the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath a fertile story-base for his explorations of human and monstrous acts, although he is the first to point out they are often the same, and that redemption is more likely to be found among outcasts and monsters than among humans. “The ultimate goal of my movies,” he has said, “is to make the ghosts benign and make the people the danger.” The Spanish films eliminate some of the nastiest people, and the Republican cause meets with some temporary success. But we know they will never win the war and they know their cause is lost. What the films tell us is that winning isn’t measured in the event but in the spirit of resistance with which these characters confront their inevitable defeat. It is this spirit that allows Ofelia, as Princess Moanna, to cross the portal into her father’s kingdom. It is a tenuous crossing. Del Toro’s resurrected world is intentionally and visually beautiful, but practically it remains as compromised as the human motivation that informs it. Magic can remind us of another way, but its powers of salvation are still caught in a dark labyrinth.

In this conundrum, the saving grace (I’m using the word devoid of any religious meaning) is that we have the capacity and the obligation to make choices. Del Toro’s characters are always presented with situations in which they can choose a better way: Jesus Gris in Cronos, offered eternal life as a vampire, resists the temptation to feed on his granddaughter and accepts the death that follows. Aurora, as it turns out, ends up being his saving dawn. Ofelia refuses to sacrifice her newborn half-brother even though doing so would guarantee her eternal life in her father’s underworld realm, “where there are no lies and no pain.” Even Jamie, the rough orphan who initially torments Carlos in The Devil’s Backbone, turns out to show a gentler side in his infatuation with Conchita, the young woman who works in the orphanage. He gives her a ring made from paper but it looks like gold, which is how she regards it. “Kid’s stuff,” she says to Jacinto, who is her fiancé and will become her killer. Conchita bridges the two worlds of the child and the adult.

The villains run the gamut from the utterly irredeemable, like Jacinto and Vidal, to the amusingly irredeemable, like Angel de la Guardia and his uncle, Dieter. In Cronos, Angel is the nose-obsessed goon with whom Jesus wrestles, and his vile uncle, who is dying of some disease, is the beneficiary of a dark sense of humour. His bedroom is lined with glass containers holding various body parts, and when Jesus comes to see him about the Cronos device, Dieter explains that “half of my body is here and the other half is on the menu.” His qualities are equal parts wit and wicked.

Certainly, humour, however bleak, is one of the devices del Toro uses to make life’s cruelty more palatable. Like his imagination, it runs effortlessly from high to low. When the boys are making trades at the Santa Lucia Orphanage, Galvez offers a special marble made by Owl; “it’s hard snot and mud. Six months of snot.” In Cronos, Jesus is being prepared for burial by Tito, a mortician and “a fucking artist,” who carefully works on reconstructing the dead man’s face until he finds out his work of art is scheduled for cremation. Immediately, cosmetic surgery gives way to patchwork aesthetics and Gris emerges looking like his name, a cross between Frankenstein and a zombie.

There are moments when the humour turns particularly visceral. The most famous scene in Cronos happens on New Year’s Eve when Jesus, beginning to feel the bloodlust that comes with being a vampire, spots a patch of red left on the bathroom floor by a man who has suffered a nosebleed, at which point he delicately licks the liquid off the white tiled floor. Del Toro admits that the references in his films are often autobiographical—“many of the things happened to me in a different way”—and we learn that he connects this scene with the memory of a day-old pizza.

That is, of course, the trouble with signs and symbols. Del Toro loves them because they are not closed ciphers and, as a result, it is impossible to fix their meanings. He wants all his bad guys “to have a humanistic side,” so the names of his good characters begin with a “C” and the bad ones with a “J.” For someone raised in a strict Catholic home, those initials carry an unavoidable Christian meaning, but what if you’re a country music fan and they stand for Johnny Cash, or you fancy Julius Caesar because you’re a history buff or a lover of Shakespeare? The very mobility of meaning can become a distraction.

Just as meanings can’t be fixed, neither can characters. For the most part, del Toro’s children are pure, but they are capable of acts of betrayal. Aurora may be innocent, but she is not a bystander; she mortally wounds Dieter as he is about to stab her vampire grandfather in the heart and, at the New Year’s celebration, her look of jealousy as an invigorated Jesus romances Mercedes, his tango instructor wife, is murderous. If looks could kill, Jesus would have a stake in his heart. Similarly, Ofelia’s wilful disregard of the Faun’s warning not to eat anything on the Pale Man’s table costs two fairies their lives. Children are us, as much as they are themselves, and del Toro is not immune to their waywardness.

Seen from one vantage point, del Toro is a child who never grew up. A better frame from which to view his work, however, comes from William Blake, the poet and illustrator who divided the world into songs of innocence and experience. But in The Book of Thel, Blake offers a view of innocence that has been strengthened by having gone through experience. This understanding better explains “a man making fairy tales about the real world.” In an interview in 2006 del Toro said, “I really think that the most creative, most fragile part of the child that lives within me is a child that was literally transformed by monsters. Be they on the screen, or in myth or in my own imagination.” He is right about sourcing his monsters. His borrowing is omnivorous: from movies and art, and from the great mythic narratives in any number of cultural traditions. But more than anywhere else, his monsters of creativity are alive and kicking in the labyrinth of his own uncontainable imagination. ❚

“Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters” opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario on September 30 and runs through January 7, 2018. The exhibition, organized by the AGO, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, is accompanied by an extensive catalogue that provides a look “inside his films, notebooks and collections.”

Volume 36, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #143, published September 2017.

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