The Devil’s Backbone is a film haunted, not just by the sallow spectre living in the basement of the orphanage where the action takes place, but by the legacy of violence and the looming horror of war. It is a film that simultaneously reimagines the ghost story while taking it back to its very roots; one that engages on a primal level with the belief that events leave a trace that can span through time. It is an immensely adult, intelligent work, and writer director Guillermo Del Toro’s most tragic film. By the time its final, beautiful shot has seared itself upon the gaze, the film has transformed into an elegy; a howl of pain dedicated to all those who have suffered through conflict.
Set during the Spanish Civil War, the film focuses on Carlos (Fernando Tielve) a young boy caught up in the bloody permutations of conflict. His father dead, abandoned by his tutor, he finds himself at the mercy of the benevolent Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi, in another brilliant performance for Del Toro, following on from Cronos) at an orphanage in the middle of the desert. Though Dr. Casares is determined to provide him safe haven, Carlos finds himself at the receiving end of the attentions of two bullies, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), not to mention the ghost of a long dead boy.
The film is a tapestry of grief and absence. Every single character in the film is missing something – whether it be Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the school’s administrator, who mourns the loss of her right leg, and her dead husband; through to Dr. Casares himself, who longs for the love of one who will love her back. Even the villainous Jacinto is a character described as a ‘prince without his kingdom,’ and his acts of violence are eventually injected with very genuine pathos.
Everything is to be mourned, and everyone is mourning, and Del Toro’s camera adopts a respectful stillness. Indeed, his cinematic style is notably restrained, particularly when compared to the roving camera he would adopt later for Pan’s Labyrinth or the epic scale of something like Pacific Rim. But the film benefits from this calm approach. The quiet, controlled tone becomes in its way deeply moving, but it also allows smaller moments of beauty to unfurl like flowers in the rain. The plume of blood flowing from the ghost’s head becomes a fluid ribbon; the flies surrounding a corpse become a shroud; a drowning becomes a kind of rebirth. In Del Toro’s world, horror is beautiful and the beautiful is horrific.
Indeed, Jacinto, the film’s only true antagonist, follows a trend with Del Toro’s villains; he’s stunningly handsome. In this way he can be equated with Pan’s Labyrinth’s Captain Vidal, or Hellboy 2’s Prince Nuada: they are all characters that could feasibly be the hero of a different film. Strikingly good looking and deeply, proudly masculine, they are the figures Hollywood loves to fetishize. But Del Toro rejects them, and their semblance of normality, choosing instead to ally himself with the outsiders, the vulnerable, the innocent. With orphans, no less; intelligent, optimistic, and profoundly kind orphans.
Del Toro has described the film as his most personal, and it’s not hard to see how. After all, The Devil’s Backbone carries forth the sentiments around which the auteur has built his entire career. As ever, creativity and kindness are the two most cherished attributes. As ever, the enemy is order, and traditionally drawn beauty. And as ever, despite the violence, and the horror, Del Toro’s faith is in that particular human trait we call mercy.