I’ve seen a couple Guillermo del Toro’s later works (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage), so I felt like I was robbing myself a little when I stepped back in time to catch one of his movies that bore his artistic hallmarks and themes. I didn’t want to feel like I was comparing it to those other two, but luckily, del Toro makes such compelling pieces that it’s easy to get lost in the dreamy cinematography and perfectly-placed musical cues.
The Devil’s Backbone is set in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War. I had gleaned some knowledge from my mildly pointless exercise of looking up what people might have eaten during that time period (so I could make it for dinner as a movie accompaniment). The Nationalists were the Franco ass-kissers, and would have eaten around 200g of meat a day. The Republican loyalists? A mere 20, if they were lucky. The Nationalists would also have had coffee and wine. Not fair! And I’m a tea-drinking, cider-swilling vegetarian (not that I would have been any of those things back then). But yeah, I had gotten pretty distracted and read about the conditions the Republicans would have faced in dormitories and on the battlefield, being more likely to succumb to illness or to disease than their Nationalist counterparts.
So I wasn’t surprised to see that the boys’ orphanage depicted in the movie, despite it housing children of war heroes, was a bare-bones of an institution, in which much of the character development and conflict comes from the various interpersonal politics at play, each with their own mini storylines. It also clarifies the unflinching inevitability that those who are in danger are primarily young children. It’s also not surprising, then, that the film’s ghostly protagonist is also a young boy; impossibly cute, impossibly evil-looking, and literally shrouded in mystery.
The acting, dialogue, editing and direction are so taut that there were moments that I forgot I was watching a movie; it felt like I was peering into a couple of really crappy days in a ’30s-era Spanish orphanage in the middle of nowhere. Every one of the kids is believable, especially the lead, Fernando Tielve (Carlos) and Íñigo Garcés (Jaime), the former of whom had never acted previously.
Unless the movie or TV show I’m watching is an outright mystery, I usually sit back and let it wash over me without trying to predict the outcome (my husband did that, but he can’t help himself – though by the time the movie was over, he’d forgotten what he’d predicted!). So, because of the story being driven by the characters and their actions (as opposed to, say, Star Trek Into Darkness, where the characters just react to plot devices), it wasn’t terribly obvious to me where the story would lead, up until the film’s final scenes (at least you hoped that’s where the movie would lead). And because it’s fairly likely that, given the character demographics, it’s the helpless, orphaned children who are constantly in danger, there’s that much more haunting, tense dread to go around here. That’s enough for me to issue caution to anyone considering watching it (as that kind of threat of violence tends to taboo in typical western horror), but it’s such a hauntingly, tragically, beautiful little piece that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll.