Written by: Guillermo del Toro, David Muñoz, Antonio Trashorras
Starring: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve, Íñigo Garcés
Orphanages in storytelling have always received a negative wrap as a place where nothing but bad things occur. While I have never stepped into one, the overexaggerated and fantastical thinking of children can certainly elevate the negativity surrounding these institutions. The Devil’s Backbone invites us into a particular orphanage with many entanglements and secrets many do not seem privy to talk about.
An orphan named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at a remote orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. With his attempts to fit in with other children, he learns more about the weird history of this place and the adults running it, including a random missile lodged in the center of the courtyard. After some time, he begins to see an apparition of a young boy, who appears to be trying to inform him of something.
The mystery of this remote orphanage creates all of the intrigue in The Devil’s Backbone. You just know some strange things have occurred in this facility and the rest of the plot confirms those suspicions. Carlos represents a level of purity nonexistent in a place meant to serve as a shelter for parent-less children. It makes sense he begins to see the presence of this apparition after learning exactly what it represents and the message it has for him.
Along with the mischievous kids, the adults running the orphanage are Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) serving as the groundskeeper. Each of them has their intricacies, but we quickly learn about Jacinto’s bad temper and his history with this facility. As an orphan and past resident as a child, his anger towards this place knows no bounds, but the reasons he stayed on as a groundskeeper gets revealed. The man finds no satisfaction in life, even with having a lover and a somewhat stable job considering there’s a civil war going on. His most telling trait, however, comes in the way he treats the current children of this facility. As someone who found himself in a similar position as these children, the lack of compassion he shows them says plenty about his character.
Visually, the look of this apparition lets you know you’re watching a Guillermo Del Toro film. As a lover of monsters, the spirit we see cannot be classified as a monster, but he sure can scare anyone he runs into. Appearing as a very pale and ominous-looking child, that would suffice as being scary but the real cherry on top comes with the open wound on its forehead spewing blood in an upwards direction. We all know how gravity works and the way the blood flows out of this spirit’s head certainly does not abide by it. I do not want to give away the meaning behind the apparition, as it reveals much more than anyone should not go into the film, but its relevance begins to unlock the different mysteries this facility has for Carlos and the audience.
Much like Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, this film looks at an adult world through the eyes of children, which makes reality so much more terrifying. These children have not experienced much outside of the orphanage, so they may not know the carnage of the civil war happening around them, but one large indicator appears in the missile lodged into their courtyard. While the adults reassure everyone of it being inactive, the presence alone signifies the violence these children have right before them with no real support present at the orphanage. Del Toro’s wonderment comes at a bit of a minimum because this film carries more of a somber tone throughout. No one in this place has any happiness and it spreads from the adults to the children.
Trauma emanates through the entire experience of watching The Devil’s Backbone, as it displays a place of unhappiness for the children and everyone else around them. With it taking place during a time of turmoil, it only heightens the emotions felt by all involved before the presence of the apparition. This truly opens up the movie in a way to provide some answers and allow for Carlos to fully understand the pain felt by the children in a place meant to provide them shelter and protection. A beautiful work once again by Guillermo Del Toro, who brings the harsh reality of the world to these children in a harsh and unfiltered manner.