After the uninspired sophomore effort of Mimic, Guillermo Del Toro’s modest but emotional and affecting wartime ghost story represented an early career creative reboot of sorts. The Devil’s Backbone resounds best not so much for its genre scares or creature effects, but the effective point of view of children displaced by war and Del Toro’s distinctly gothic and disturbing take on the subject matter.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001) dir.Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Fernando Tielve, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Eduardo Noreiga
By Alan Bacchus
The line dividing Guillerno Del Toro’s Spanish-language pictures and English-language pictures is clear. Peppered into Del Toro’s strong output of genre genre pictures like Blade, Hellboy and Pacific Rim are his two most resonant and memorable films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Both set during the Spanish Civil War featuring children not directly in the line of fire but displaced by war.
The collective of kids who inhabit the isolated Spanish orphanage in this picture reminds us of the Spielbergian collective of children in say, ET, Goonies, or more appropriately Empire of the Sun mixed with, say, the Tarkovsky cynicism of Ivan’s Childhood. The Devil’s Backbone looks like a fine companion these collalary films.
Here Del Toro puts us in the final week of the Spanish Civil War, in a deserted orphanage in the middle of nowhere, but notable for it’s defused bomb laying derelict in the middle of the courtyard. Carlos (Tielve), orphaned by the death of his father, a rebellion soldier, arrives without knowing he’ll be left at the facility. With its bullying and social hazing it’s a Dickensian introduction to the social melieu of the home. Carlos is immediately in conflict with Jaime, one of the older boys, but slowly finds common ground in the mutual sadness of their plight.
While Carlos’s story blossoms Del Toro and his co-writers layer in a story of a cache of gold hidden by the Spanish republican sympathizers and sought after by the nefarious caretaker Jacinto. And then there’s haunting story of the death of a boy who disappeared the day the bomb fell in the courtyard and who now appears as melancholy spectre of revenge.
Del Toro anchors the film in camraderie of the children, a Goonies story of the maturity of the children independent of the guidance of adults. Eventually as the war draws to a close and the sinister elements of greed from Jacinto’s morally clouded ego emerge, the Spielbergian element morphs into a truly deadly and dangerous fight for survival and escape.
Eduardo Noriega as the deranged Jacinot admirably begins the film rather innocently and slowly emerges as a ruthless villain, coloured by the trauma of his past as a former child resident of the school. His death at the end is truly spectacular, a superbly gothic gruesome sequence stabbed numerous times by the various tormented children of the orphange.
The Devil’s Backbone doesn’t quite have the fantastical lyricism of Pan’s Labyrinth, a much more richer and hypnotic adventure, but still exemplifies the best aspects of Del Toro’s cinematic voice – a combination of genre satisfaction and fantasy/horror almost literary in its resonance.
The Devil’s Backbone is available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection