Spain. 108 minutes. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, 2001. Starring Fernando Tielve, Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Irene Visedo, Iñigo Garcés.
Spain, 1939. Young Carlos, his father killed in the Spanish Civil War, is abandoned at an orphanage run in the remote countryside. Cesares and Carmen, who run the orphanage, are Republican sympathizers hiding a cache of gold used to back the treasury, while raids from Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s fascist Nationalist faction are common. As Carlos adjusts to his new life, it soon becomes clear that the orphanage is not just under siege from military and political forces: a supernatural element seems to be at work as well, an element Carlos believes to be connected to a boy who disappeared from the orphanage before his arrival.
“What is a ghost?” asks Dr. Cesares in voice-over narration at the beginning of The Devil’s Backbone. “A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time, like a blurred photograph, like an insect trapped in amber.”
These words serve to establish a feeling of existential dread that hangs over the film. It’s easy enough to look at the plot and see a simple coming-of-age story with horror elements, but telling that story often seems merely like a means to an end for Backbone’s director and co-writer, Guillermo del Toro, who’s a bit of a legend now but was more obscure in 2001. Del Toro is more interested in mood, atmosphere and theme here–the most prominent theme being the effect of tragedy and atrocity on the young. That’s perhaps the defining obsession of his career: it’s the central thesis of his masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth (to which Backbone can be seen as a sort of spiritual prequel) and it’s even present in films he’s produced such as Mama and the remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
As such, Backbone is more interested in characters and world-building than it is with plot. There are many meandering story-threads here, and a lot that I couldn’t cover in the synopsis paragraph: the orphanage’s nasty caretaker, Jacinto; Cesares’s fascination with morbid poetry, or his unconventional rum recipe; the unexploded bomb that stands upright in the mud just outside the orphanage compound. And not everything will tie together by the end of the film.
However, del Toro’s skills as a cinematic world-builder outweigh his lack of interest in following the standard narrative path. From the middle ’30s to the middle ’40s, the world seemed to have been caught up in a collective madness, of which the Spanish Civil War was only a part, overshadowed in history by the second World War which broke out after Franco proclaimed victory. Del Toro’s script and visuals flawlessly bring this bleak period to life, and while it’s very clear that things are not going to work out very well for our characters, we want them to struggle against the inevitable anyway. Even the film’s nominal villain has a credible reason for what he’s doing and a sympathetic background. Meanwhile, the cinematography is breathtaking and the effects work impressive and inventive, showing something of an influence of Asian horror. (As does the story, come to think of it.)
The performances are all pitch-perfect, with not a dud in the bunch–even amongst the child actors, most notably Fernando Tielve (as Carlos) and Íñigo Garcés (as Jaime, the orphanage’s resident bully). But in terms of acting, the film really belongs to Federico Luppi as Dr. Cesares and Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto. Luppi is the very embodiment of holding on in the face of the inevitable, and even his posture suggests the tragedy of the era; while Noriega, whose character stands in for the raw brutality of the period, is a dynamic presence who electrifies every scene he’s in.
Overall, The Devil’s Backbone is a very strong and emotionally-affecting if bleak picture (don’t be surprised if you walk away with some of your faith in humanity drained) that shows its auteur at the top of his game.