Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural piece, The Devil’s Backbone, is a beautiful humanist tale set during the Spanish Civil War. Familiarity with the factions during the war isn’t a prerequisite to watching the movie, but is something a viewer should understand if they want to get more from the experience. The story follows a newly orphaned child, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) as he’s forced to integrate and deal with the supernatural aspects of a orphanage for the children of those associated with the Republicans.
This movie is less scary and more eerie in an aesthetic sense. The first shot is a wonderful indication of this, as it starts as an introspection on ghosts to a missile being dropped into the ground. The real horror of the movie is the violence that people are willing to inflict upon one another for capital gains. In the war, a huge revolution was read by the authoritarians and fascists against the leftists Republicans and anarchists- a battle that served as a precursor to World War II and whose contents are still being fought about in the status quo. The characters proximity to the war helps provide a nuanced commentary on the same, while highlighting the heavy costs of warfare. As such, nothing feels heavy-handed, and thematic victories feel more earned.
Throughout the film, pan shots are utilized to great effect. The distance and layout of the orphanage feels well-realized, and I felt like I had a grasp of the basic floor plan because of how well the space is visualized and traversed. Furthermore, they create this constant sense of dramatic irony. Multiple characters have secrets that get revealed in this way, which helps flesh out the characters and explain their motivations. The transition is never overused, so it feels fresh every-time that it happens.
The movie constantly highlights agency and understanding. Characters stay less powerful when they know less. The children are constantly forced into action and feel like they can’t do anything. The adults feel forced into a situation and war that they hope ends well for them but has slowly taken everything away from them. Even though no character takes Earth-shattering actions, their personal journeys and attempts at regaining control in their lives is interesting and serves as a kind of microcosm of the Civil War going on in the background.
Certain character choices and decisions feel less justified in the third act. Some characters make bad choices, but there are definitely some events that happen that feel like the story needs them to happen as opposed to feeling like an organic response to what went on. Thankfully, these issues mainly show up regarding more of the side characters, but they do impact the story.
TLDR: The Devil’s Backbone, is a well-shot and gorgeous story about the depths of human solidarity . It tackles it’s themes in a poetic way that really take advantage of the story’s setting.
Final Rating: 8.8/10. History buffs who know more about the Spanish Civil War would love this. Fans of humanism or empowerment stories would also like this. Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!
Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!