World Cinema Wednesday: The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
AKA 31 Days Of Horror #5.
“What is a ghost? 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.”
It’s this thoughtful rumination on ghosts that opens The Devil’s Backbone, a film that remains up there with the very best from director Guillermo del Toro, partly because it uses traditional techniques and masterful storytelling to show that a ghost can be all of those things, and partly because it intertwines the supernatural and the real horrors of the Spanish Civil War in a way that showcases just how people can use one to escape the other (an idea developed to an arguably even more impressive degree in Pan’s Labyrinth).
Fernando Tielve plays Carlos, a young boy dropped off at a small, barely-surviving, orphanage while his carers head off to keep fighting their fight. The two main figures running the orphanage are Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi). Both are kindly souls, unlike the hot-headed janitor (Jacinto, played by Eduardo Noriega) or the young bully (Jaime, played by Íñigo Garcés) who proceeds to pick on Carlos, at least until they both find some common ground. The orphanage also has an unexploded bomb in the middle of its yard. And the ghost of a boy (Santi, played by Junio Valverde) who disappeared on the night the bomb landed.
As I am sure you can already tell, there are a number of story strands here that present different tensions. The young boy trying to get used to his new surroundings. The bullying child. The bullying adult. The unexploded bomb, although deactivated it sits there as a reminder of the war raging around the characters. And the spirit of Santi. It may be the latter providing the spookiest moments in the movie, created by a fine layering of imagery and computer work, but no one aspect is neglected as the various strands are woven together to complete a beautiful tapestry stippled with blood, sweat, and tears.
The acting is top-notch from everyone involved, with Paredes, Noriega, and Luppi always on hand to carry some scenes after enough time has been spent with the children, mainly Tielve and Garcés. They’re all helped immensely by the script, co-written by Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Muñoz, which teases out an intriguing backstory while at the same time fleshing out the main characters and delivering the requisite scares. The tone is set by that opening speech; an attempt to remind viewers of the versatility of horror, and of the many different ghosts that can be encountered in our lives.
It’s tough to pick an absolute favourite from the filmography of Guillermo del Toro, with Mimic being a minor blip in a career that has seen him constantly impressing film fans from his feature debut, Cronos, onwards. But this has to be in contention.
DIRECTOR: GUILLERMO DEL TORO
WRITER: GUILLERMO DEL TORO, ANTONIO TRASHORRAS, DAVID MUÑOZ
STARS: MARISA PAREDES, EDUARDO NORIEGA, FEDERICO LUPPI, FERNANDO TIELVE, ÍÑIGO GARCÉS, IRENE VISEDO, JUNIO VALVERDE
RUNTIME: 106 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: SPAIN, MEXICO, FRANCE, ARGENTINA