Fresh Eyes: The Devil's Backbone (2001)
I really should not need to explain how good of a director Guillermo Del Toro is to anyone reading this. Pan’s Labyrinth probably ranks somewhere among my top 25 films. I love Pacific Rim, Cronos, and Crimson Peak, and am heavily anticipating The Shape of Water when it releases later this year. However, I’ve often heard great things about The Devil’s Backbone, which I assumed to be in a similar vein to Pan’s Labyrinth, based on the Criterion cover alone. So for this week’s Fresh Eyes, I opted to have a look at The Devil’s Backbone, which has been begging to be taken off the shelf for some time now. I think I made a good decision.
Set during the tail end of the Spanish Civil War, the film centers around a young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who gets dropped off at an orphanage by two soldiers, as his father died fighting in the war. He eventually finds a place among the other children, and learns about Santi (Junio Valverde), a child who lived in the orphanage and died under mysterious circumstances. A concurrent plotline involves Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) attempting to rob the couple running the orphanage, abusing the other orphans, and plotting the general downfall of the orphanage.
The presence of the Spanish Civil War in the film adds a layer of uncertainty and dread to proceedings. Every character in the film is touched or affected by this war, a fact only reinforced by the presence of the bomb in the middle of the courtyard. Even though the orphanage is way out in rural Spain, it cannot escape the horrors of war and violence humanity are capable of. Since the couple running the orphanage are closely involved with the Republican forces, the children essentially become trapped by the war itself. When Carlos arrives at the orphanage, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) tries to reassure him by saying the orphanage is not a prison, and he should try and make himself comfortable. However, Carlos and the other children are indeed trapped there, but not by bars. The threat of violence and war keeps these kids in place, as it is implied they are all here because of the war, and the older couple are agents of the war keeping them in the orphanage. On top of this, Jacinto represents the constant threat of domestic abuse, made real by his actions towards Santi and, later on, Carmen and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi).
This undercurrent of violence and human cruelty is only made stronger by Del Toro’s masterful grasp on Gothic film and literature. In Gothic literature, the supernatural elements of the narrative are often serve as a counterpoint to the human cruelty on display. Del Toro understands this immensely well, as he often returns to Gothic imagery and symbolism in his films. While not as visually Gothic as Crimson Peak or Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro creates an atmosphere of believable Gothic terror in The Devil’s Backbone. The orphanage is a stand in for the archetypal castle, situated in the middle of nowhere and in a state of disarray. Santi is the ghost that everyone fears and speaks about in hushed tones, but ends up one of the most tragic figures in the film while Jacinto is the actual threat to everyone’s well-being. Ultimately, the point of Gothic literature is to highlight the cruelty and violence that humans are capable of towards each other. Del Toro uses the Spanish Civil War setting and the presence of Santi’s ghost to discuss themes of greed, murder, adultery, and bullying.
All these themes would not come through half as well without the stellar performances throughout. The film’s emotional core rests on the shoulders of the child actors, and they all knock it out of the park. Fernando Tielve delivers a complex, emotionally layered performance, perfectly balancing curiosity, terror, and sadness, but while maintaining believable childlike behavior and mannerisms. Junio Valverde, for the little bit he is on screen, is both horrifying as the ghost and saddening as a child, giving a horrifyingly believable death scene. Del Toro is great at directing children, much in the same way Spielberg is. It is an accomplishment that so much is asked of the child actors, and they deliver on everything and more.
Guillermo Del Toro’s library continually impresses me. With each new film I see from him, the more convinced I am that he is one of the most talented directors working today. The Devil’s Backbone struck a chord with me due to the Gothic overtones and themes, and by the end of the film I was more engaged with it than any other film I’ve watched for Fresh Eyes so far. After seeing this, I am even more excited for The Shape of Water, and will be in that theater on opening night, guaranteed.