“The Devil’s Backbone” (Horror Buff is putting his Bachelor’s degree in Spanish to good use!!)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Studios: Canal+ España, Good Machine
Starring: Fernando Tielve, Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes
Tagline: ¿Qué es un fantasma? (What is a ghost?)
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: foreign film, Spanish language, mystery, drama, horror, ghost, haunting, orphanage
Scare score: B
Plot overview: In 1939 Spain, the Civil War that has ravished every aspect of life and society for Spaniards across the nation is finally coming to a close as the Nationalist troops have Republican troops on the run. In the midst of the war, an isolated orphanage for young boys of leftist parents is trying not to draw any unwanted attention from the outside while dealing with its own secrets. Our story begins as young Carlos (Tielve) arrives at the orphanage, still unaware that his Republican father has died. He starts off on the wrong foot with older orphan and bully Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) but befriends boys Gálvez (Adrián Lamana) and Búho (Javier Bódalo). The orphanage is run by the dedicated Dr. Casares (Luppi) and the amputee Carmen (Paredes), and it is maintained by former orphan Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). In the middle of the courtyard, serving as a constant reminder of the war outside, is a supposedly disarmed bomb that was dropped by Nationalist forces but never exploded. Shortly after his arrival, Carlos begins to see the image of a young boy and hear an eerie warning voice which the boys refer to as “el susurro” or “the whisper.” Both real and supernatural danger ensue as the war outside finally blows open the dark secrets of the orphanage.
I loved this film. Watching it one time wasn’t enough, especially because I couldn’t find any versions online with subtitles, so while I was able to enjoy the beautifully written original Spanish script, I am sure I missed out on a few of the smaller details. The Spanish Civil War is a fascinating subject that I always enjoy learning more about; perhaps even more fascinating is the abundant collection of art, literature, and film that have come out since those three dark years – a vast and varied collection of creative media rich in poetic language, symbolism, and raw emotion. El espinazo del diablo is no exception. Fans of Pan’s Labyrinth will certainly see similarities between del Toro’s two works, and although the characters in this film serve as archetypes of the Spanish Civil War, they develop and retain an astounding amount of endearing uniqueness and personality.
Leading us through the bulk of the film is the talented and easily likable Fernando Tielve. His portrayal of Carlos – the innocent child yet orphan and victim of the war, as many child protagonists are in resulting Civil War literature – is acceptable as though we were watching a dramatic (and supernatural) yet true tale of a young boy. I think it’s easy to see that Carlos is representative of Spain’s future: orphaned, young, damaged though still innocent in many ways and with many tough times to come. Though perhaps braver than your typical 12-year-old might be, Carlos ultimately serves as a positive protagonist who leads us through the plot’s ordeals through a child’s point of view.
I also enjoyed the performances of the other orphan boys. It was enjoyable watching tiny, individual coming-of-age stories (in a way), whether it was hearing them share ghost stories, laughing at their excessive and “typically Spanish” cursing habits, or warmheartedly listening to them discuss the unfamiliar topic of women, these young actors did a great job.
Dr. Casares and Carmen were both likable adults (from Carlos’ young point of view) as well as rich archetypes for the Spanish Civil War. While productive and hard-working, they are each wounded and handicapped in their own way: the Doctor is impotent and Carmen has lost both her legs and must move around on prosthetics. Although the attraction between them is clear, neither of them ever admit in words their true feelings. Both of them are [formerly involved] leftist sympathizers, and the Doctor’s strict belief in science and almost Enlightenment era, rational explanations is a standard concept of the Republicans of the time, whereas Nationalists were typically strict Catholics. Still, faith (in a sense of the word) as well as supernatural occurrences protect the protagonists in this film, showing us perhaps a deeper and different message than what we gather from our Republican protagonists. Faith protects the orphanage as they are disguised as a Catholic institution due to varied Nativity and Calvary decor. Faith protects Carlos as he learns to overcome his fear and learn if the ghost is trying to help. Even the strictly scientific Doctor will ultimately learn a personal lesson about the supernatural. Back to the Doctor’s impotence – while he may try to pass on his Republican beliefs, at the end of the day he is a childless father trying to teach fatherless children. This might represent how the Second Republic was doomed even before the war had ended.
On the other hand we have the violent and repressive Jacinto. While this young man comes from the same start as these other boys, he represents the other side of the ordeal (and therefore the ‘brother against brother’ motif of this Civil War): brute force, aggression, and selfishness that we can understand as being the Nationalist side of the war. While both sides committed no small amount of atrocities, Franco’s Nationalist troops were often merciless in their fighting, bomb-dropping, and especially punishment. Jacinto therefore comes to stand for the young and strong modern generation that goes against the efforts of its elders.
Alrighty, enough about politics. This was a beautifully done, even personal film, so I can understand del Toro’s dedication to it. I really enjoyed the balance between real danger and supernatural danger. I thought the ghost was dealt with beautifully. I love real hauntings – okay, so sure, our protagonist is a new and frightened child who’s dealing with sudden abandonment by his caretakers and a la Pan’s Labyrinth we might have to fight to distinguish between fantasy and reality – especially because it gives the ghost so much more purpose. Carlos’ nighttime adventures were intriguing and frightening. I loved the ghost scenes because they did make me a little uncomfortable, playing with shadows and the classic eye-through-a-keyhole. I thought the special effects for our young ghost were well-executed and also touching; there was something sad about the blood-in-water bit he had going on.
Final critique: Beyond the scary scenes, this film is truly more of a drama-mystery with gothic horror elements. The script was really excellent and even poetic from what the narrator had to say and even what the characters had to say to each other. I wonder if the English translation does justice to the original Spanish – I will have to look into buying this little gem. Also, it is simultaneously the tale of a country torn apart and of a young boy left alone to deal with his own fears and present reality. I thought this film dealt with the concept of ghosts beautifully, and it was set very nicely against the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. I recommend this film to any viewers, although those who scare easily will certainly be uncomfortable in several scenes throughout the movie.