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The Devil's Backbone
Legacy (Part 4 of 4: Truth and the Spanish Civil War)
We arrive at the fourth and final installment of our series: Truth and the Spanish Civil War. We started with Parallel Mothers, which offers a dense metaphor of the war from a contemporary point of view. We moved on to The Mexican Suitcase, a documentary that directly explained events through the eyes of some of the foremost war photographers in modern history. Land and Freedom took us straight into the conflict while dramatizing conversations among the resistance to explain the difficulty and complexity of mounting a united front against fascism. For the final segment, I recommend a film that uses precise allegory in a period setting to illustrate the lessons of a country still healing from tragedy.
The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001) might be one of the most fantastic allegories for a historical event ever committed to film. I don’t say this lightly. There is a reason that Del Toro considers this his “first” actual film; in reality, it’s his third film, after Cronos (Great) and Mimic (Not as great). In an excellent essay by Mark Kermode, you can read more about the sad and typical experience del Toro had in Hollywood, which he describes as “the worst experience of my life.” Yikes.
With funding from El Deseo, Pedro Almodóvar’s production company, del Toro returned to the Spanish language and a subject that had been deeply important to him since his earliest days of screenwriting. In doing so, he produced one of the most beautiful, haunting, and layered films depicting a traumatic period of a country’s history you’re ever liable to watch.
I am hesitant to describe the plot in detail; this is one of those films that pays to go in with as little knowledge as possible. There is one caveat: the more you are familiar with the history of the Spanish Civil War, the more the richness of the plot details will stand out to you. To be clear, none of the major plot points that represent more significant movements of history are ham-fisted; they fit organically into the story and would go unnoticed by anyone looking simply to enjoy a scary movie for a fun movie night. Take, for example, one of my favorite elements of the film, as seen in the header image; a giant bomb dropped on the orphanage that our main characters inhabit remains undetonated. “Some people came by and said it was defused, but I don’t believe them” intones one of the children. Is it defused? We can’t be sure, in the same way, that we can’t be sure what will happen when we don’t fully address problems, electing instead to ignore them or take half-measures. All of this action occurs under the watchful imagery of the crucifix. (I recommend reading Kermode’s essay, linked above, for a deeper and more spoiler-ridden breakdown of the film, along with insight directly from del Toro.)
Reflecting on del Toro’s most recent work, Nightmare Alley, I think of what meaning may lie beneath, of which I've yet even to scratch the surface. The film was the product of a master working at the peak of his craft (if you haven’t seen it, I recommend checking it out), but my takeaway upon first viewing was something along the lines of “Well, I guess that’s why you don’t do spook shows.” I imagined having watched The Devil's Backbone in 2001 (I would’ve been 15) and that I might have thought, “Wow, scary…” without ever understanding the more profound meaning towards which the director is driving. Something impressive about Nightmare Alley that is equally remarkable about The Devil’s Backbone is you don’t know what to expect in terms of tone and events. Will there be ghosts? Will a character stumble upon the supernatural and alter the course of history? With del Toro’s films, we can never be entirely sure what the ground rules are; or what may happen. We are off balance and unable to look away, caught in the grip of the unknown, desperate to discover the truth so that we can sleep more easily.
For my money, Del Toro is in the most distinguished company of filmmakers, like Bong Joon-ho or Jordan Peele; one can buy a ticket without knowing anything about the movie and rest assured that they will get a dense work that is not only meaningful but entertaining. The Devil’s Backbone subverted my expectations multiple times. It showed me painting-like images of extreme beauty and contrasted them with acts of desperation, selfishness, bravery, and solidarity. If you’ve already seen del Toro’s more widely known works (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, Hellboy) and liked them, then The Devil’s Backbone will be a sublime experience.
The final shot instilled a profound restlessness in me. It was a landscape painting of failure and hope, a dramatic, moving image of walking forward together when everything is lost. Have the specters of the past found peace? Have we? Or are we all still walking, still searching?
The Devil’s Backbone
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Muñoz; Directed by Guillermo del Toro