The Devil's Backbone

The Devil's Backbone

2001, R, 106 min. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Starring Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Iñigo Garces, Fernando Tielve, Junio Valverde.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 15, 2002

Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut were an unlikely pair – the prim master of suspense and his sensitive, derelict French pupil – yet one suspects they would agree on The Devil's Backbone, a Spanish-language festival darling in which Guillermo del Toro marries the sensibilities of those two great auteurs into one elegant, spooky story. Best known for the blood & guts spunk of Mimic, Blade, and Blade 2 (which has its world premiere at SXSW this Saturday), the formerly Austin-based del Toro limits the gore here for more old-fashioned scares, coupled with a slow gorgeousness that feels almost archaic in a genre now subsumed by frenzied jump cuts, quick payoffs, and a sloppy inattention to detail. The Devil's Backbone is nothing if not exquisitely detailed: It's like a blood orange that del Toro spends the film seductively unpeeling, revealing layer upon layer of meaning and pathos. The story is set in a crumbling boys' school that has mutated into an orphanage cum fallout shelter as the Spanish Civil War rips apart the neighboring countryside. (The charming ensemble of orphans here easily recall the lost boys of Small Change and The 400 Blows.) One night, an errant bomb falls to earth and lodges itself in the cracked earth of the school's courtyard, miraculously never detonating. That same night, one of the boys, Santi (Valverde), disappears. Newcomer Carlos (Tielve) quickly matches up the missing Santi with the hollow-eyed, molding specter he's been seeing around the grounds. Santi whispers to the terrified Carlito that many of them will be dead soon. It's the beginning in a series of not-quite twists in the tale – that would suggest too much swiftness in this delectably languorous film that moves with all the speed of the bleary-hot Spanish sun. (Only occasionally does the slow pacing threaten to sabotage the film's suspense.) The film's title refers to a condition, later diagnosed as spina bifida, that afflicts babies in the womb – “children of no one, the children that shouldn't have been born,” as the school's stately yet impotent Dr. Cásares (Luppi) explains to Carlos. Dr. Cásares keeps jars of the deformed fetuses floating in whiskey (a drink from the jars supposedly wards off impotence), and that grotesque image provides one of the film's most haunting visual metaphors. It reinforces the conflicting forces of good and evil that permeate the piece – how something so beautiful could turn out so badly, and how there is something beautiful to be found even in the worst lot. That paradox applies to almost everyone here – the embittered schoolmistress (the always excellent Marisa Paredes); the gamekeeper, Jacinto (Noriega), an orphan himself bent on reversing his fate; the powerless doctor; the orphans, who must react to violence with violence; even Santi, at first a terrifying aberration, but in reality the ultimate lost boy, a pitiful casualty of war and greed who only wants to find his way home.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Guillermo Del Toro
Film Flam: El Rey Shines on Austin
Film Flam: El Rey Shines on Austin
Robert Rodriguez's TV channel to become permanent production fixture

Richard Whittaker, June 10, 2014

Five Kaiju You'll Never See Coming
Five Kaiju You'll Never See Coming
Before you see 'Pacific Rim,' expand your monster knowledge

Richard Whittaker, July 11, 2013

More Guillermo Del Toro Films
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
A thrilling and touching version of the children's classic from the master fabulist

Steve Davis, Nov. 18, 2022

Nightmare Alley: Vision In Darkness And Light
Del Toro's sideshow noir gets a monochrome transfer

Jan. 21, 2022

More by Kimberley Jones
Austin FC Season Kickoff, Black History Month, and More Community Events
Austin FC Season Kickoff, Black History Month, and More Community Events
Get out and about in Austin while the weather's good

Feb. 23, 2024

The Austin Film Society Is Hosting a Conversation With Don Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge
The Austin Film Society Is Hosting a Conversation With Don Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge
Hertzfeldt will present his new short film "Me"

Feb. 15, 2024


The Devil's Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro, Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Iñigo Garces, Fernando Tielve, Junio Valverde

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle