Like precious blood, I’ve been absorbing anything Guillermo Del Toro for the past few months. I’ve been reading the Strain trilogy, re-watching Del Toro’s movies, and eagerly await his upcoming book of artwork and story notes. Revisiting the Del Toro library I watched The Devil’s Backbone for the first time in almost seven years and wow, a film like that only comes once in a blue moon. Where it may not match the whimsy and magic of Pan’s Labyrinth, its emotional core and symbolic imagery may make it Del Toro’s most personal film.
The film is set in Spain, 1939, during the final year of the Spanish Civil War. Fernando Tielve plays Carlos, a young boy who’s been left behind at a reclusive home for orphans. The orphanage is run by Casares (Federico Luppi – a favorite of Del Toro’s) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who are aligned with the Republican Loyalists, and are hiding gold for the Republican Treasury. This creates tension between Casares/Carmen and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the orphanage’s greed-driven groundskeeper who wants nothing more than to take the gold. Meanwhile, Carlos must not only adjust to his harsh peers but to a mysterious ghost of a former orphan named Santi, who now haunts the grounds. What happened to Santi? To what heights will Jacinto reach to claim the gold? The stakes are high and always getting higher.
Immediately, The Devil’s Backbone strikes you with its powerful imagery. Many symbols in the film parallel to the idea of being stuck in limbo. A large bomb that was dropped during the war sits center stage on the orphanage grounds, yet has never exploded. There’s a countertop in Casares’ office adorned by fetuses in jars (born with a spinal condition called: The Devil’s Backbone) that represent life that got lost along the way. Even Santi represents a moment of pain forever immortalized as a sorrowful spirit. The film is as touching as it is tragic.
A great deal of Del Toro’s influence comes from his own background as a lapsed Catholic. The fears that we carry forever due to the struggles of life. Much in the way of its sister work, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone Shows the hardship of a troubled childhood but also the spirit to overcome that hardship. It gives me nightmares in my mind and in my heart. A must see!