Just finished watching The Devil’s Backbone, a powerful film which may have left me unsatisfied because I was expecting it to be something it didn’t want to be. The movie, by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), is set during the Spanish Civil War at an orphanage run by Communists. A young boy, Carlos, is brought to the orphanage. He’s beset by the local bully, and also begins to see a ghost, “the one who whispers,” a young boy like himself. The rest of the film plays out the mystery of the ghost against the backdrop of the Communists’ defeat in the war.
The movie is amazing to look at. The entire film is set solely on the grounds of the orphanage, which is golden and orange in the daytime and a truly haunted, pulsating blue and orange at night. The dusty buildings are surrounded by a flat, bare expanse, like a desert. The adults who run the place frighten Carlos at first, although I was pretty certain early on that the doctor who keeps preserved fetuses in his laboratory and the teacher with the complex wooden leg were genuinely trying to protect the kids.
The opening voiceover asks, “What is a ghost?” and adds a lot more existential questions about memory and pain. These and other elements of the movie seem to suggest that it’s aiming for a complex message, something which will disturb as it lingers in the mind. And yet the film’s story gradually uncoils into a startlingly simple tale of revenge and good vs. evil. The black and white hats switch heads with only one character, and that happens really early on in the movie. Otherwise the good guys only get better and the bad guys only get worse. (You can tell which ones are the good guys by their degree of Communism: The redder, the more morally pure. I’m going to leave that aside since we’re all adults here. ETA: This issue is pretty inescapable for a Catholic viewer though, since there’s a replacement-Eucharist which is repeated in the movie and which plays the same role that the actual Eucharist plays in hagiographies like Romero.) The revenge tale is as stark and compelling as a fable, but also as complex.
I will say that this movie admirably illustrates the violence inherent in making the community–even a community of children–one’s sole or highest good. In this movie there’s some potential for complexity since the attacker comes from within the community of children in a certain sense (I don’t want to give away too much), but that potential, which might offer hope of some kind of reconciliation, atonement, or mercy, is explored for literally less than a minute before being discarded.
The music is a bit heavy-handed and it’s used too much, I think.
What The Devil’s Backbone did amazingly well, besides just capturing a sense of place (and getting some lovely child performances), is convey the helplessness of the orphaned kids. They’re really alone under this huge sky in this desert. If they disappear people will just say that they ran away. At the end credits we learn that the movie is dedicated “to my parents,” and I think that’s the moment where I came closest to choking up, because of everything we’d been shown before.