Life through my myopic eyes.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001): Guillermo del Toro’s Tour de Force


Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, HellboyThe Devil’s Backbone  is a slow and haunting film that frightens and mesmerises the viewer. Overshadowed by the wildly successful Pan’s Labyrinth, the film is a lesser known film, that despite the success of Labyrinth, is a superior film.

Set during the 1939 Spanish civil war, the film follows Carlos’s arrival to an all boys orphanage located in the war-torn countryside. We follow Carlos in his day-to-day experiences and his interaction with everyone at the orphanage.

The film starts with the camera zooming in on the Orphanage itself, with the narrator, Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) asking: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat it self time and again?” We see a bomb being sent to earth by a plane and its landing in the orphanage and we see the body of a young boy lying on the ground.

The narration continues. “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.”  While the last of the narration continues, we see that the boy’s head is covered in blood and that another boy is with him. We then see the bloodied boy in water, sinking slowly down as bubbles rise around him.

This wonderfully mesmerizing opening goes on during the opening credits of the film. And it sets the mood of the film brilliantly. This narrative by Dr Casares sets up the framework of the film. His questioning of what a ghost is tells us that the orphanage is haunted and just from the opening scenes alone, we can tell it is haunted by several spectres.

Carlos is brought to the orphanage by car, speeding through the dusty and desolate countryside. Carlos is with his guardian and bodyguard who is taking him there for his own safety while the civil war escalates. Upon arriving the first thing noticed is the unexploded bomb. It is half buried in the dusty courtyard of the orphanage. This is the first spectre that both haunts and threatens the inhabitants of the orphanage.

Carlos himself comes from a ‘wealthy’ family and he is convinced that he is there temporarily for his own safety. It transpires that he will be there much longer. Initially, Carlos has trouble fitting in with the other boys and he has trouble sleeping. He sees the ghost of the boy we saw at the beginning of the film. His greatest antagonist is Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) but this changes when Carlos saves Jaime from drowning in the ‘dead-boy’s’ pool. 

It turns out that the real bully of the orphanage is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) an alumni of the orphanage who stayed to work there when he grew up. Jacinto is the second spectre that haunts the orphanage. A spectre with a pleasing countenance who is full of bad thoughts and evil deeds. He is also the local ‘stud’ servicing, it seems, all the women in the orphanage. Including the ‘head’ of the place, the one legged Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is loved by Dr Casares.

Dr Casares is the third spectre of the orphanage. Impotent and a man of poetry and great passion, he loves Carmen but says nothing as he knows he cannot please her as a man. Instead he is haunted regularly by the sounds of her love making with Jacinto. And later in the film Casares will become a ‘real’ spectre who protects the boys and saves them from danger.

The boys of the orphanage tell Carlos that the ghost he sees is that of Santi (Junio Valverde) who went missing the night the bomb fell into the orphanage courtyard. The only person who knows what really happened is Jaime and Carlos (and the audience) believe that Jaime killed Santi. Santi is the  third ‘Gothic’ spectre who haunts the orphanage.

While the ghostly sightings and discussions are going on, we find out that the orphanage is the repository for the rebel’s funds. Gold is kept there to help feed and arm the rebels. Jacinto finds out about this and plots to steal it. Dr Casares goes to town and witnesses Carlos’s guardian and body guard’s  execution by government soldiers and is questioned and insulted by the same soldiers. The civil war is getting closer to the orphanage.

This film was all about ghosts and being haunted. All the characters are haunted by things. Things in their past, their present and their possible futures. And it was about ghosts.

The ghosts or spectres are many, the unexploded bomb, Santi’s spirit, Dr Casare, the gold and the civil war itself are all spectres that haunt the characters in the film. There are other ‘ghosts’ and you will discover that everyone in the film is affected by them.

I believe this film, should be considered the apex of Guillermo’s career as a director. The Devil’s Backbone is a film that does not take one miss step in its execution of the story and the building of it’s characters. It was annoyingly difficult to find at one point, I had several friends tell me, they could not find a copy to view.

If you can find this film. Watch it. You will not be disappointed and you will most likely fall in love with this Spanish film and it’s creator.

Guillermo del Toro

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Categorised in: Drama, Entertainment, Film Reviews, Ghost Story, Horror Film, Mystery Film, Supernatural, World Cinema

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