Ever since witnessing The Devil’s Backbone (2001) many years ago, it has become a very personal favourite of mine. Not only because of its outstanding direction, beautiful cinematography and genuine performances, but because of the haunting but very human message at its heart.
After spotting a showing hosted by the new independent pop-up Snowcat Cinema I knew I couldn’t miss the chance to see one of my favourite films on the big screen for the first time.
Frustrated by his experience in Hollywood with Mimic, Del Toro returned to the fantastical roots found in his debut feature Cronos with The Devil’s Backbone. As with his critically acclaimed offering; Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Del Toro sets his story against the context of the Spanish Civil War. Here the narrative develops through the eyes of the war’s abandoned children at an orphanage, the last refuge from the violence which has engulfed the countryside outside.
With his opening sequence, the director conjures an atmosphere which haunts the individual arcs of its characters and the audience’s own viewing experience alike. Through this sequence, Del Toro also awaken’s the film’s core message. This is a message which is emphasised throughout the film by the director’s masterful use of imagery and it is this; The ghosts to which humanity is blind, are those which doom us to repeat its bloody and tragic history. Tellingly Marisa Paredes’s character, Carmen, comments early in the film “Sometimes I think we are the ghosts”.
As the narrative develops we gradually begin to learn more about the orphanages’ dark past and the ‘one that sighs’ through the eyes of our main character Carlos. This is expertly balanced with the anxieties of our main character as he struggles to fit into his new surroundings. We also come to learn about the tragic and intertwined pasts of our other characters, including Carmen, the Orphanage’s headmistress, doctor Cásares and her lover and the orphanage’s bitter caretaker, Jacinto. As with any good filmmaker, Del Toro achieves excellent and sincere performances from the whole of the cast to bring these characters and their individual stories to life, including Fernando Tielve as our protagonist Carlos.
Equally, using his composure behind the camera and with the help of cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and composer Javier Navarrete, Del Toro crafts many scenes to impress and capture the viewer. This includes gothic-tinged images of Santi walking the corridors of the orphanage at night. Santi himself is an equally fantastical and horrifying creation, an unseen but haunting reminder for our characters of the escalating civil war and of their own personal regrets and demons.
At the centre of many of these images is the unexploded bomb in the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard which we witness descend from a plane at the start of the film. This also becomes an important visual element to the story. In many ways, it is just as much a ghost as Santi, simply another looming spectre of the war.
Though not as well-known as his most celebrated work; Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone offers an equally powerful message about the monsters which hide within men. Much like in Pan’s Labyrinth, the most disturbing and powerful scenes found within the film are those where there are no ghosts, only man’s inhumanity.
To this end, The Devil’s Backbone is a truly timeless piece of filmmaking and one which we can all learn.
Snowcat Cinema’s next genre offering will be Philip’s Kaufman’s own excellent 1978 take on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers later this month on the 29th March. You can found out more info about them and future screenings in Penarth and at the Crafty Devil Bar in Cardiff on their Facebook page here.