In honor of Spring Break, I decided to be a lazy bitch and take last week off. Sorry, loyal readers and c’est le vie (or rather--asi es la vida--feel free to correct my wretched Spanish in the comments)! In recompense, I’m offering you a morbid, Spanish orphan extravaganza. First up is 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone. Directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro and produced by Pedro Almodovar, it has all the surreal imagery, barely suppressed eroticism, and brutality genre fans have come to expect from these two rogues. It’s the most fun you’ll have learning about the Spanish Civil War, so let’s get started, kiddies.
Set in 1939, in the waning days of the conflict, our story takes place in a nearly destitute orphanage where two rebel soldiers are dropping off a young boy named Carlos. The orphanage is presided over by an imperious amputee named Carmen and her platonic, impotent life partner Casares, who doubles as the orphanage’s doctor. They harbor the children of dead rebels, but more importantly, they are the safe house for a huge cache of gold the Republicans need to keep the insurrection going. As Carlos struggles to fit in at his strange new home (an unexploded bomb stands upright buried in the middle of their playground and there are constant rumors of ghostly presences), Jacinto, the gorgeous groundskeeper, schemes to steal the gold, and Franco’s vicious soldiers draw nearer and nearer to snuff out this hotbed of rebellion.
The world at large became aware of del Toro with his phantasmagoric Pan’s Labyrinth, but he was putting orphan kids through Hell long before he had the money to put Doug Jones in a nightmare suit. Even more than Pan, this movie mixes the fable-like and the fatalistic with real skill. The sordid love quadrangle between Carmen, Casares, Jacinto, and Jacinto’s innocent lover Conchita never detracts from the ghost story, but intertwines beautifully with it. Most of the adults don’t ever see the ghost boy featured on the American posters, but they’re haunted nonetheless: Carmen by the loss of her legs and her long-dead husband, Casares by his failing body and futile devotion to Carmen, Jacinto by the parents who abandoned him and Carmen who began abusing him as a young boy, and Conchita by her fantasies of “saving” Jacinto from his mean streak and her fairy tale dreams of a normal life together somewhere far from the cruelties of war. The less amazing, less well-written, less well-realized del Toro outing Crimson Peak has the one brilliant line about its own strange story structure, “It’s not really a ghost story so much as a story with a ghost in it.” Nothing exemplifies this tragic, haunted quality quite like The Devil’s Backbone.
While del Toro does devote a good wedge of the running time to the adult drama in the story, he also turns his camera on the inner workings of the children’s world. Del Toro perfectly balances the concerns of the orphanage’s libidinous caretakers with the innocence of its children. Even with the spectre of death and war constantly surrounding them, the children still engage in harmless hazing rituals, an ardent barter system, and friendships that withstand even the most violent encounters. As in Pan, childhood wonder and selflessness are shown to be some of the only admirable things left to cling to in a world gone rabid.
The Devil’s Backbone is a love letter to all that Spain suffered in those terrible years of Franco’s rule and their Civil War. The pain, loss, and trauma of those events are felt by every character, regardless of age. Never sluggish or overly academic, the movie charms you with its tangled relationships and austere cinematography, while drawing you in to the lessons it teaches about del Toro’s country. Like a letter from a warzone, The Devil’s Backbone is a testament to a time forgotten by much of the Western world, and a thing of terrible, sad beauty.