Guillermo Del Toro has firmly established himself as an auteur in modern filmmaking. His stylistic and self-described ‘personal’ cinematic canon expertly combines fantasy with realism for narratives that are rich in both imagery and cultural context. Perhaps the most salient pieces of his filmic jigsaw are the three times he has made features in the Spanish language – Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Pan’s Labyrinth was obviously lauded the world over, but its predecessor and “sibling film” The Devil’s Backbone is not as widely renowned. However, this new Blu-ray re-release of The Devil’s Backbone from Umbrella Entertainment allows us to revisit this gothic tale in all its glory, with some informative special features thrown in for good measure.
The plot unfurls at an orphanage during the final few months of the Spanish Civil War as 12-year-old Carlos finds himself sent to the rural institution after his father is killed fighting for the Republicans. Analogies can immediately be drawn with the narrative of Pan’s Labyrinth that too uses the Spanish Civil War as an effective backdrop for a tale of fascism and fantasy to play out.
The antediluvian orphanage-cum-school is an ominous place, filled with memories and sadness. Most notably, an unexploded bomb in the courtyard serves as a daunting visual reminder that even in this remote place, the horrors of the war are manifest. The projectile too is apparently responsible for the disappearance of a young boy named Santi, who has been missing since the night the bomb fell. In many ways the orphanage can be read as a microcosm of the war, and Carlos comes to realise that internal and ideological conflicts threaten the stability of the small community.
There are two major narrative threads that transpire within the film; the first concerns the mystery behind Santi’s disappearance and after Carlos is plagued with visions of a grisly spectre that appears to be a child, he sets out to learn the truth. The second thread focuses on tensions between the adults, with the Republican loyalists Dr. Cesares and Carmen sit on a stockpile of Republican gold – much to the dismay of caretaker Jacinto. As the film progresses, these threads intertwine to create a revealing and historically pertinent melodrama.
As with Del Toro’s entire oeuvre, colour is tremendously important. The palette on show in The Devil’s Backbone is one of sheer artistry. Scenes in the courtyard and the daytime have an ochre-orangey hue that functions as a visual metaphor to show how the war entraps the inhabitants in the institution, just like the insects and foetuses that are shown entombed in amber in the opening vignette. The scenes at night in the orphanage have a juxtaposing bluish-green tone that plays on stylistic notions of Gothicism and twilight supernaturalism. Crucially, all these colours are there to fully marvel at as this Umbrella release presents the film in stunning, 1080p High Definition.
The Devil’s Backbone truly is a masterful film, one rife with both symbolism and story. This is a poetic piece of cinema that manages to expose the horrors of war through the lens of fantasy.
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: GUILLERMO DEL TORO / SCREENPLAY: GUILLERMO DEL TORO, DAVID MUÑOZ, ANTONIO TRASHORRAS / STARRING: MARISA PAREDES, EDWARD NORIEGA, FREDERICO LUPPI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW