Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ is an unsung masterpiece

Fernando Tieve gets creepy in 'The Devil's Backbone'
Fernando Tieve gets creepy in ‘The Devil’s Backbone’

When the opportunity presented itself for me to return to journalism, I pounced on it. Years after my self-imposed retirement, I began writing DVD reviews for this site because I knew it offered the perfect opportunity to do something I really love to do: champion movies — great movies — movies that slipped under the radar of even the most film-savvy cinephiles. Case in point, The Devil’s Backbone.

During my brief stint at a local Blockbuster, it didn’t surprise me that most customers hadn’t heard of the film. Chain store consumers tend toward mainstream, star-driven fare; indie, alternative and foreign films have little interest to them. What did surprise me was that most of my friends — screenwriters and filmmakers, all — hadn’t heard of this amazing film either.

The Devil’s Backbone opened in the shadow of The Others, exactly the kind of mainstream, star-driven vehicle that swallows all the smaller films around it. Both Backbone and The Others were set in the past. The latter starred Nicole Kidman. The former featured a trio of well-known actors. Well-known to Latin audiences, anyway, but unknowns in the U.S. Both films featured a break in the delicate fabric separating the worlds of the living and the dead, spilling one into the other until the border disappeared. Alas, when it comes to the box office, horse races like these aren’t always won by the best film. More often they’re won by the first film released.

Of the two, The Others received modest reviews. The Devil’s Backbone got raves. The Others hit theaters August 14th in 2001, raking in a whopping $14,000,000.00 plus in three days. The Devil’s Backbone opened in November of that same year, grossing just under $35,000.00 its opening weekend.

The race wasn’t fair by a long shot. Kidman’s film opened three months before and was pumped by the Miramax war chest. It didn’t hurt that Kidman’s film was produced by husband Tom Cruise, or that the film played on 1,674 more screens than Backbone. And then there’s the issue of subtitles. Americans hate them, andThe Devil’s Backbone had ‘em from beginning to end. With only four screens in the entire U.S. playing the film, it’s little wonder Backbone fell into obscurity after its release.

I missed it when it played in theaters. You probably did, too. But I’m here to tell you, it’s not to be missed on DVD! The film is a masterpiece.

Guillermo Del Toro's 'The Devil's Backbone'
Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘The Devil’s Backbone’

The Devil’s Backbone opens in Spain, 1939, during that country’s civil war. After his father is killed, twelve-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is dropped at an orphanage in the middle of the desert. Behind the high stonewalls of the isolated structure, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the matronly headmistress, and the gray-haired Doctor Casares (Federico Luppi) nervously watch over the children of the war’s martyred freedom fighters. Leftist ‘Reds’ themselves, Carmen and Casares live in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their charges.

Like a featured character, death is ever present at the orphanage. Present in the walled courtyard where an unexploded bomb stands planted in the ground, it’s metal heart ticking. Death haunts the edges of the story in the constant threat of Franco’s cruel militia and the summary executions going on a town away. It breathes in the form of a fleeting apparition that appears to young Carlos soon after his arrival.

The orphanage caretaker, Jacinto — angry and virile — wanders the grounds like a panther walking circles in a cage. Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) has his own agenda. With one eye on his coworkers, the former resident-orphan turned hateful adult will stop at nothing to get the gold locked in the orphanage safe by the strong-willed headmistress. Secured for the cause of democracy, the gold is a double-edged sword; if funneled to the rebels, it could buy Spain it’s freedom; if discovered by the Nationalists, it would mean certain death at the hands of the Fascists.

While the characters of matinee idol-handsome Noriega, and veterans thesps Paredes and Luppi get plenty of screen time, the story of The Devil’s Backbone is rooted in the point of view of Tielve’s Carlos.

Carlos grows even more curious about the ghostly child that appeared to him when he hears the children discussing “The One Who Sighs,” a presence all of them have felt, but only Carlos seems to see. Just who the ghost is, and what he wants is the mystery he determines to solve, even as the cruel Jacinto tries to keep him from the truth.

“Many of you will die,” the child ghost warns Carlos in the basement, his voice like the sighs of the dying. In an American film, it would be safe to assume that the ghost isn’t warning the children; pre-teens never get hurt in our movies. Before you get too comfortable with that notion, let me remind you — The Devil’s Backbone is not an American movie. No one is beyond death’s reach in the film. There is no moral code protecting the weak and punishing the guilty. As in war, suffering is very democratic. It’s this uncertainty that fuels the films suspense.

The Devil’s Backbone is that rare piece of popular entertainment that has something for everyone. At a glance, it’s a ghost story. On that level, the film delivers in spades, featuring a number of hair-raising sequences, genuinely horrifying imagery, and top-notch special effects.

It’s also a drama. In Backbone, director and co-writer Guillermo Del Toro (Blade 2,Hellboy) and co-writers Antonio Trashorras and David Munoz spin their tale with characters so memorable, and conflicts so passionate that the story could have stood on its own without its supernatural elements; the ghost, it turns out, is the “icing” on a cake good enough to eat without any!

Shot in the classic style of the great masters, Backbone also succeeds as high art. The film is gorgeously photographed, artfully composed, and its dialogue so poetic that the film unfolds with the richness of literature. Yet, for all of its high brow ambitions, The Devil’s Backbone is first and foremost a visceral experience, a thrill ride that grabs the viewer by the throat from its first arresting image, and doesn’t let go till the final fade to black.

What can’t be overstated here is how well the cast inhabits their characters. The actors are uniformly terrific, with a pair of the film’s juiciest roles going to the children. Tielve, as the story’s sympathetic core, carries the film as Carlito. It’s amazing to learn, as we do in the feature-length commentary, that this is the actor’s first film; he’d come to auditions hoping for a part as an extra. Vets Paredes and Luppi (with over 120 film credits between them) lend gravity to their roles as headmistress and physician, respectively, and provide the film’s bittersweet romance. Irene Visedo finds just the right notes as Jacinto’s naïve, conflicted lover, and Inigo Garcès is excellent as the orphanage bully hiding a few secrets of his own.

In 1992 Del Torro came to prominence when his gothic, feature film debut Cronos won The Critic’s Prize at the Canne Film Festival. As with most contemporary, foreign directors, Del Torro’s first American effort, Mimic, was…well…not so great. Disillusioned by studio politics, the director returned to his native Mexico, formed his own production company, partnered with Oscar-winning filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and more than redeemed himself with The Devil’s Backbone, a film the director sites as his most personal and rewarding effort.

Backbone has been available now for two years, and it’s worth tracking down. Whatever you do, ignore the cheesy artwork on the box; the images chosen make the film look like a straight-to-video, exploitation flick, and do nothing to suggest the frightening, lyrical art film within. The quality of the DVD transfer is superb here, with every shadow, skin tone and texture popping off the screen. Director of Photography Guillermo Navarro (Hellboy) paints the tale with bold strokes of color that translate richly, and his use of long lenses give the film an old-school, movie-movie feel. The DVD, thankfully, retains the original’s widescreen format, which is used to great affect throughout.

As extras go, The Devil’s Backbone proves that less can be more. Special features include a 12-minute, making-of documentary that invites us into Guillermo’s process, and reveals that most of the talent doesn’t look or sound anything like their characters. Warning: DO NOT watch the making-of featurette before screening the film; the doc contains a number of rather nasty spoilers.

Del Torro’s feature-length commentary with longtime collaborator Navarro is insightful, charming and funny. The director has a wicked sense of humor, which frequently turns to self-deprecation. He and Navarro have been pals since ’88 and their friendship enlivens their dialogue.

Other extras include the best storyboard comparisons I’ve seen on a DVD. The feature gives viewers the option to view each (oddly cartoony) storyboard panel in sequence with the film’s corresponding soundtrack, or in tandem with the final scene as it appears in the film.

Regular readers of these reviews will recall that I’ve been particularly hard on the trailers on past DVD’s. Well, I’m delighted to say that the teaser for Guillermo’s masterpiece is as fine a trailer as could have been cut for the film — it’s compelling without giving too much away, visually arresting without being too heavy-handed, and concludes with one of the film’s creepiest moments. Additional trailers include 13 Ghosts (the 1960 original), All About My Mother and Not One Less.

With scenes of sexuality and violence against children, the film earns its “R” rating, and is probably not appropriate for underage viewers. A final suggestion: if you have small kids, put your Devil’s Backbone DVD in the player after they’ve left the room. The film’s menu screen features the wounded, ghostly child and could give impressionable little viewers restless nights for weeks or years to come.

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