The Devil’s Backbone



El Espinazo del Diablo : Spain (Spn/Mex) 2001 : Guillermo del Toro : 106 mins

With Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) firmly established as the greatest Spanish film about youth, Mexican writer-director Del Toro shows plenty of cojones by coming up with another spooky tale set in a rural children’s institution during the Spanish Civil War. And while Backbone has its moments, Del it never quite manages to escape from under Erice’s poetic shadow – this is, by contrast, a solidly old-fashioned kind of ghost story with only intermittent flashes of Del Toro’s ‘trademark’ visual flair. He’s also been widely praised for his stated plan to alternate between arthouse and the multiplex fare – as if this somehow automatically makes him a groundbreaking kind of genre auteur. But Backbone is really only slightly more satisfying and cohesive than his mega-bucks follow-up, Blade II – suggesting that Del Toro isn’t yet quite comfortable at either end of the budgetary spectrum.

12-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is abandoned at a remote, dusty orphanage where it’s hoped he’ll be sheltered from the country’s raging war. Though he soon falls foul of resident bully Jaime (Inigo Garces), Carlos finds the orphanage an essentially benign institution, capably run by leftist couple Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes). The teachers include the sympathetic Conchita (Irene Visedo), but a more menacing figure is Conchita’s brooding boyfriend Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), himself a former pupil at the orphanage. While the war creeps ever closer to the orphanage’s walls, Carlos is also troubled by the presence of a large, unexploded bomb in the playground – and, more disturbingly, visions of a ghostly child which seems determined to make contact.

What with the political angles, the orphanages’ various internal tensions and the ghostly mystery, there’s certainly no shortage of plot in The Devil’s Backbone (the evocative title refers to a deformed foetus kept in a jar in scientist Casares’ office.) And Del Toro’s script (co-written with Antonio Trashorras) does a decent job of juggling the various elements, emphasising their impact on the impressionable, resourceful central figure of Carlos. It’s a major burden on Tielve’s slender shoulders, but he carries it well – even though in terms of characterisation Garces who makes the biggest impact, revealing unexpected psychological depth behind Jaime’s bullying exterior. Not all of the characters, however, are developed quite so compellingly: one of the adults unconvincingly emerges as a crazed, murderous and unredeemable psychopath whose extreme actions steer the plot down unexpectedly melodramatic and downbeat paths.

30th September 2002
(seen 15th April, Melkweg, Amsterdam : 18th Fantastic Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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