Anatomy of an Auteur: The Devil’s Backbone
Fresh off a disappointing American premiere of Mimic(1997), Guillermo del Toro was a young director in need of some home cooking. Enter Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish language film icon. Almodóvar could have cared less how the young del Toro fared in the U.S., he knew del Toro was talented, and wanted to offer him the chance to go back to his roots; the Spanish language. What came of this arrangement was El Espinazo del Diablo – The Devil’s Backbone.
The Style and Birth of an Autuer
Del Toro was given full artistic control over the picture, as well as final cut, meaning the film couldn’t go to print until del Toro approved of the final edit. The result was a masterpiece. It has a classic, elegant and poetic style. You can see elements of Orson Welles, Hitchcock and even F.W. Murnau. The steady, sweeping and creeping camera work; the tall, deep shadows, and the heavily arched, vast and gothic setting. To many, this is a masterpiece, and is the companion piece to Del Toro’s equally stunning masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth.
Though we see that the story is told through multiple points of view, we find out that there is an omniscient narrative device: Dr. Cesares. Dr. Cesares, as we come to find out, is a poet or at least appreciates the art form, and that is the style in which the film is told – poetry. The camera’s eye moves in elegant patterns constantly floating above its subjects then gracefully swooping lower to change its point of view. Though there is a creeping quality to it, not unlike many horror films, it adds layers of sadness and beauty, things that might be lost if told in another way. This poetic style is not just limited to the camera’s movement, but also reinforced by the onscreen action and pacing. The characters all move in a careful, slow and deliberate manner.
The Devil’s Backbone
The film takes place during the height of Spanish Civil War, and this film focuses on the impact it had on the children, many of whom were orphaned and evacuated. From the very beginning we are explicitly told this film is about a ghost. The very first lines of the film are “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
For the children, there is an actual ghost – an apparition or something that is dead which still seems to be alive, but for the adults, their ghost is an implicit one and it comes in the form of loss. In fact, loss is the overarching theme of the film and applies to all of the main characters. The orphans have lost their families. Carmen has lost her leg and her husband. Dr. Cesares has lost his ability to fulfill his desires and carries with him the regret of past inaction.
Visually, Del Toro ties everything together with a Bomb. Dropped during an air raid by the Nationalist forces, the bomb hit its target, an open courtyard and center of the enclosed orphanage, but it does not ignite. Buried halfway into the earth with its tail exposed above ground, it stands like a statue, a constant symbol of everything lost, and the expectation of future losses.
The bomb is the metaphorical connective tissue of the film. It is the ghost, something that is dead which seems to be alive, and the parallels to each sub-narrative are striking. Take Carmen for example, the headmistress of the institution. She has lost her right leg and in its place a wooden, metal, leather bound prostheses. Also, Dr. Cesares; a bomb is a phallic symbol but it did not work how it was supposed to. Dr. Cesares is a man of poetry and passion, but like the bomb, his impotence has left him empty.
No other character quite personifies the bomb as much as Jacinto, the caretaker and former orphan unable to escape the confines of the orphanage. Every character with the exception of Jacinto and Jaime, the bomb stands tall above them in nearly every frame – this looming symbol of the destructive nature of war. That is because for almost all of the characters, no problem is bigger, and no pain is stronger than what the war has brought. For Jacinto, this deadly war is no match for the enormity of his own anger and that anger has driven him to desperation. Like an active bomb, it is only a matter of time before he explodes. This is the reason that Jacinto is often filmed higher in the frame than the bomb.
Jaime, too, is also framed higher than the bomb and that is because his character is not only at odds with Jacinto but is characteristically similar. Jaime’s own anger and loss have hardened him, like how you’d imagine a young Jacinto. Jaime has dark plans for Jacinto who is too wrapped up in his own sinister plot to ever fear this young man’s wrath.
Companion Films and Beyond
With a classic style and careful touch, Guillermo del Toro proved to the world his immense talent with The Devil’s Backbone. His Spanish language follow up, Pan’s Labyrinth, furthered intense themes introduced by the former. Coming of age, loss, war, and tyranny are all themes that ring throughout both exquisite films and show what a truly unique artist del Toro is. Guillermo del Toro is currently filming a dark re-imagining of the classic child’s tale Pinocchio.