The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

I guess being an orphan isn’t enough pain and misery for del Toro.

A young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) gets dropped off at an orphanage near the end of the Spanish Civil War, where he doesn’t know that his parents are dead yet. So rather than risking limb-for-limb, he stays at the orphanage where there are fellow other kids, a headmistress that hies gold and other items for Communists (Marisa Paredes), a caretaker who’s a bit of a dick (Eduardo Noriega), and a doctor (Federico Luppi) who takes Carlos under his wing and teaches him the ropes of life and living. Carlos also runs into problems when he comes upon a ghost people have named “The One Who Sighs”, who is also a kid that apparently died there, once an explosive was dropped. It’s all too much for Carlos to take in, but to make matters worse, he also has to worry about a bully (Fernando Tielve) that’s constantly on his ass, at all times.

Despite this flick being placed in the category of “horror”, it’s very far from. Yes, it does have elements of a horror movie with the creepy sensation that a ghost-kid is running all over the place, but it’s nothing special that we haven’t seen done before, especially from a master like del Toro. del Toro makes the sad mistake of revealing a bit too much of this ghost, way too early to where we aren’t as scared as him, as much as we are used to seeing him and his fucked-up appearance. It sort of gets old after awhile, despite del Toro using plenty of impressive special-effects to dolly the kid up and make him look as sinister as you can get with a “kid ghost”. That said, the “horror” aspect of this movie is pretty weak, but that’s about it. Everything else in this flick is pretty damn good, especially if you love depressing stories that never end with the sadness.

So full of life and hope. Can't wait to see it crash and burn! Mwahahaha!!
So full of life and hope. Can’t wait to see it crash and burn! Mwahahaha!!

Yeah, those are the types of movies we all love.

del Toro is smart in setting up his story at the end of the Spanish Civil War, where it practically seemed like the country was at one with itself. Everybody was frantic, everybody was paranoid, and everybody felt like any second they lived on this planet, could very well have been their last. This not only spread throughout certain parts of the country, but throughout the whole, damn place, and it never seemed to end. Taking that note into consideration when seeing this movie has it do wonders because it feels like the type of movie could have actually been made around that time/area. It’s a very dark film that takes some surprising turns, even if it does get so dark, you wonder how nobody didn’t just kill themselves filming it. Especially del Toro who shows his appreciation for character-development and human-interest that was nowhere to be found in Mimic.

Every character here, good or bad, feels like they at least have a soul and act as if they would act if their backs were pushed against the wall because let’s face it, during this time: everybody’s backs were. Everybody was constantly on edge and wondering what was going to happen next, which is why it was such a nice refresher to get the view of that world, from the eyes and mind of young children; eyes and minds that are so innocent, that once bad shite starts happening all around, you not only feel dread for them, but damn near to tears because you know that they don’t deserve it no matter what. Once again, del Toro is making a film where kiddie-bops are the main characters and the ones that hold the glue together, but it works here because the story feels so realistic and central to them that you can’t help but feel more emotion for this story, even when it seems to be just a total and complete downer.

Now that I think of it, I don’t think I laughed once. Yeah, I know that del Toro probably wasn’t trying to make me laugh when he showed a little kid named Santi with his cut-open and blood spurting out, but this movie is almost humorless to the point of near-suicide. Obviously del Toro’s point isn’t to make us laugh, or giggle, or really enjoy ourselves, but more to tell a story that’s as dark as the devil it speaks of, but honestly; a little humor and a little lightness could have gone a long, long way. At times, I actually just felt like I was watching a director/writer take his story wherever the hell he wanted, added as many dreadful twists and turns as humanly possible, and ended on a note that would stick in our minds for awhile, but for reasons we don’t really understand. I have to give credit to del Toro for at least hitting those marks, and hitting them surprisingly well, I just wish everything wasn’t so damn sad throughout the whole time.

Not even a little smile or anything? Nothing?

As with most of these foreign films, you will be distracted at first by the fact that everybody’s speaking a language you can’t understand very well, so obviously you have to READ. Yeah, I know it sucks for the 21st Century-viewer, but after awhile of it being on, you get used to the words at the bottom of the screen and actually focus more and more on the fantastic performances we have on our hands here, from all across the board. Fernando Tielve has the hard task in making his young Carlos seem innocent, while also making him seem like a kid who’s on the verge of breaking out his cage and breaking everything/everyone in sight, and he does it well. You can tell that the kid has plenty of wonderment in his eyes and in his soul, and it may even bring you back to the days when you were a little kiddie, just wondering what was right and wrong about the world. Sometimes the “right” things of the world ended up being the “wrong”, and vice versa. That’s the way the world works, and watching as Carlos grips that reality feels heart-wrenching because he’s such a sweet, innocent boy, that you almost don’t want him to see the ugliness that’s truly out there. Still, Tielve handles it all very well and it’s a surprise the kid hasn’t shown up in anything since.

What's his problem?
What’s his problem?

The adults are also very good, if a bit one-dimensional at times. Eduardo Noriega plays Jacinto, the the former-orphan-turned-caretaker of the joint and is a total and complete dick, but never makes much sense as to why. Noriega is good in the role and gives us as much heart to this character as he can muster up, but it does seem like a harder task that was left to be undone as the character never really makes it clear why he’s such a dick, and does the things he does. Sure, he was abandoned as a little tike and left to finish his days in the orphanage, so why the hell is he constantly beating the shit out of every kid that just so happens to accidentally breaking something? I get you’re mad, but WHY THAT MAD!??!?!

Marisa Paredes plays Carmen, the headmistress, who also happens to be sleeping around with Jacinto, even though I never understood the reason or rhyme as to why and how. Oh well, at least Paredes is good and keeps her character from being more than just the “evil, old hag who hates little kids”. Easily could have gone down that road with her, but instead, she remains very sympathetic. Federico Luppi rounds out the impressive cast as Doctor Casares, the type of guy who has a heart, a soul, and a breathing body of one that cares for every soul on the face of the planet. Not only is the dude working with the best character of the whole film, but Luppi also gets a chance to show a bit of a darker side to this guy as well, one that you can’t help but applaud and stand behind, even when his motives and ideas become a bit questionable. However, that’s when Luppi shines the most and really kept me watching the scenes with him and Carlos, considering they could have easily been the corniest things since I’ve seen since the last time I watched All My Children.

Consensus: Even though it runs the gauntlet in probably one of the saddest movies I’ve seen in a long time, The Devil’s Backbone still feels like an honest, personal story from the heart and mind of del Toro, who knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it, it’s just the methods that get a bit screwed up in conjunction.

8 / 10 = Matinee!!

Okay, maybe he wasn't the coolest guy in the flick, but he had some nice features to him.
Okay, maybe he wasn’t the coolest guy in the flick, but he had some nice features about him.


  1. I love this film. I love, love, love this film. It’s my favorite del Toro by a long shot, particularly in the look of Santi with the floating blood drops and the cracks in his skull like a china doll. So eerie and scary, but still beautiful in its own way.

  2. For me, this is one of del Toro’s most essential features. I’m stoked that it’s finally coming out on Criterion under the spine number 666. Plus, del Toro is going to put new subtitles because he didn’t like the original DVD subtitles.

  3. Lovin’ the del Toro reviews, Dan!! I admit, I was a little “meh” with the story of Devil’s Backbone, but entranced with the look and style of the film overall. It’s an effective piece, sure, but in my mind I had it built up to be this masterpiece it could never achieve…..

    That said, it’s probably about time to revisit this one on DVD again and perhaps do a review of my own. Nice stuff mate!!

  4. Great write-up! “Not even a little smile or anything? Nothing?” LOL! indeed.

    Nice del Toro build up to Pacific Rim–I am almost giddy with excitement about it!

    Later! 😀

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