“The Devil’s Backbone” is ranked on the low end of the Guillermo del Toro scale to me, which is to say I thought it was glacially paced, oddly choreographed, awkwardly written, overly expository, brilliant, beautiful, tragic and interesting. My wife Aly pointed out that this is pretty classical Hollywood, and she’s right – meaning I’m painting all classical Hollywood movies as boring, I guess, which makes me a shit film critic.
I’m not doing that, though. Anyway.
Del Toro’s first movie, “Chronos,” is a vampire masterpiece. His second, “Mimic,” is a studio-horror oddity made without his final cut. “Backbone” is his third movie, and the first to feel truly personal. It’s small-scale but extremely complex, a melodrama, a ghost story, a mystery, all set during the closing days of the Spanish Civil War.
Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is dropped off at an orphanage for war orphans run by Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi). Casares is helped by Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a man who grew up in the orphanage. As Carlos integrates himself into the hierarchy of the orphanage, he comes to realize that it is haunted by the ghost of a boy named Santi (Junio Valverde), a former resident of the compound.
I’ve always felt del Toro has an unparalleled visual imagination but his scripts don’t tend to engage me; his influences are so ever-present that they rarely sink into the page. I appreciate them intellectually but not emotionally. When I love one of del Toro’s films, it’s because his visual imagination succeeds so vividly that I don’t need that real connection. This is part of del Toro’s “historical fantasy duo-logy,” the messy sibling of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which is a much better movie.
Part of the problem, I guess, is that I did not find it interesting to watch.
But “Backbone” is the kind of movie that lingers and grows in esteem as the fat peels away in your memory and you’re left recalling only the emotional musculature. Watching a movie is one thing, remembering a movie is another. And this is one I had trouble putting away afterwards. It never scared me, never really disturbed me, but it is a movie about young boys growing up in a hard place that isn’t overly saccharine and isn’t afraid to be small. When I wrote that it is tragic, interesting and brilliant, I mean it. I didn’t like the movie very much; I appreciate it better from a distance.