Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Guillermo del toro’s The Devil’s Backbone is almost a spiritual sibling to his later film Pan’s Labyrinth. Both films view the world threw the eyes of a young child, feature humans who pure and good, feature other humans who are monstrous, and they include some kind of monster. While Pan’s Labyrinth uses a fairy tale as its vehicle of story telling, The Devil’s Backbone uses a ghost story. Together these two films, along with del Toro’s first feature film, Cronos, act as a trilogy of spanish language films that explore good and evil and the beings who belong in either category. While Pan’s Labyrinth is a beautiful film in its own right, The Devil’s Backbone appears to lay the foundation for many of the themes that will come to define del Toro’s films
The Devil’s Backbone, like Pan’s Labyrinth, takes place during the Spanish Civil war. It focuses on a young boy Carlos, who is dropped off at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere, Spain, after his father dies fighting in the war. In the middle of the courtyard is a bomb that landed, but did not explode, and was later diffused. When Carlos arrives at the orphanage, he immediately begins to see strange things in the shadows. The tenured boys at the orphanage call these strange things, “the one who sighs.” Gradually, Carlos builds a friendship with the bully of the group, Jaime, who tells Carlos about a boy named Santi who disappeared the same day the bomb landed in the courtyard. As the boys in the orphanage continue to build their friendship, the fear of war reaching the orphanage looms over the horizon.
Like any other film he’s made, Guillermo del Toro has managed to do some impressive world building with this story. Even though the film takes places during real historical events, he somehow manages to create a unique environment that is simultaneously based in reality and based in a fantasy world. Compared to Pan’s Labyrinth, this film is more grounded. The only fantastical element of the story is the ghost. The ghost, however, manages to permeate the story in such a way that it is felt in almost every scene and every line of dialogue even when it isn’t the focal point. Like the bomb in the courtyard, the ghost acts as a ticking countdown clock of dread that hangs over the story.
Instead of the journey of one boy, this film focuses on the collective journey of the entire group as they learn to rely on each other in a world that doesn’t want any of them. The film has characteristics of The Goonies, or The Outsiders in the way that it shows these orphaned kids dealing with their place in the world. To contrast the group of current orphans, the story also includes Jacinto, the current caretaker and former resident of the orphanage. While the younger orphans continue to be hopeful that their parents will someday come back for them (a belief that is ironically sad), Jacinto has become bitter toward the world for abandoning him. The woman who runs the orphanage, Carmen, calls him “the Prince without a kingdom,” which is cleverly played out symbolically in the film. The acting brought forth in this film is incredible. Each actor becomes their character in such a way that you forget you’re reading subtitles and for a second actually understand what the characters are saying without knowing any Spanish.
The Devil’s Backbone acts as a foundation of sorts for what del Toro will produce later in his career. While many of the themes that reoccur in his work are introduced in Cronos, those same themes are fully fleshed out here. The ghost in the story is a hideous creature; both terrifying and mysterious. While the ghost is outwardly horrifying, its the ghost that warns Carlos and the others about the impending threat to the orphanage. Its not the ghost that the orphans should be made afraid of, its people and their violent actions. This same theme is found in both Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak. In Crimson Peak the ghosts are horrifying, but they ultimately seek to save Edith. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the faun is frightening to look at, but the Captain and his intentions are much more frightening. In fact, as the story progresses in Pan’s Labyrinth, the Captain transforms outwardly to reflect how monstrous he is on the inside and how monstrous his actions are. For the Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro as Criterion likes to call it, it is the human beings who should be feared, and not the monsters present in the story. In many ways, Crimson Peak is the culmination of what del Toro was creating with Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth.
With this film, del Toro has shown that he is adept at creating an emotionally stimulating, ghost story. The film stands on its own, and yet it also works with the trilogy that the Criterion Collection has released with the themes that it shares with Cronos, and Pan’s Labyrinth. There are many similarities between the three films, like the opening and closing narration, the monster who is less monstrous than the humans, and a young child coming of age. The Devil’s Backbone is not without faults. The closing narration explains too much of the symbolism, which makes the audience feel stupid. While the closing narration in Pan’s Labyrinth actually builds on the symbolism found in the film. If you enjoy a good ghost story, and want something different, The Devil’s Backbone is a film you must watch. If you liked Pan’s Labyrinth, you will love The Devil’s Backbone. If you like Guillermo del Toro, you must watch this film.