What Is True?
September 15, 2002
Edited: December 30, 2008


Review: The Devil's Backbone

The Devil's Backbone, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, is a compelling ghost story about a boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), left at a Spanish orphanage. This movie is dubbed in Spanish, but I quickly forgot the subtitles because of the absorbing story and cinematography.

The packaging for the DVD  (1) makes it appear more unsettling than it really is. Only the foetus in the jar offended me - because it's a dead human being. The movie is rated R because of violence and some sexuality. With respect to the violence, this story reminds me of some elements in William Goldingís classic Lord Of The Flies (2), which was one of my favourite novels as a teenager. The point is that you may not want your pre-teens to become so resourceful with sharp objects.

The Devilís Backbone has serious themes. The Spanish Civil War is winding down, and the war has cheapened life, at least in the minds of the wicked. However, there are enough good-hearted characters to go around, including the benevolent leftists who run the orphanage, Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), and the headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Various stages of life are covered: children, young man and woman, middle-aged man and woman. Eduardo Noriega and Irene Visedo also star in this film.

To me, the most striking thing about The Devilís Backbone is how much backbone there is. Carlos is the most fearless of a brave bunch of boys, and he certainly needs to be. The boys challenge each other. What seems to be bullying at first, in my mind reveals itself as something positive, as survival training to build courage.

This film is strongly anti-war, in the sense that not even an orphanage escapes the dread of the technology and mindless totalitarianism of modern twentieth century warfare. Doctor Casares' anguish comes through in one scene were he watches foreigners, including one Canadian, being executed because they fought for his cause, in his country's civil war.

The other political side, Franco's, is portrayed in all its ruthlessness (the movie is probably biased this way), so there is nothing but sympathy for the besieged leftist doctor, especially when he gives up on the lost cause and commits to his real cause. Then he also discovers the real enemy.


DVD: The Devil's Backbone - reviews at Amazon.com.

2. Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

3. Roger Ebert's review: http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/2001/12/122105.html

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