The Devil’s Backbone (Spanish): excelente!
Haunting, expansive, imaginatively symbolic and immensely moving supernatural fantasy that is so visceral and emotional a fable, its akin to poetry in motion. Playing away like a testosteroned sibling of Guillermo Del Toro’s magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, following a recently orphaned young boy being brought to an orphanage run by the idealist leftists in remote post-Civil War Spain only to face the mystery of a sighing ghost; an outrageously violent, gold-digging orphan-grown-into-caretaker; a ticking bomb right in the middle of the orphanage courtyard; and a crew of similar-aged orphans to make friends with, the motion picture is so tastefully layered that even its title alludes to a historically valid tug of war between superstition and science in a war-ravaged, dispirited, curious-to-believe Europe.
In fact this suggestion of biological mutants [in the movie they are aborted fetuses afflicted with rachischisis] being given the rank of monsters before molecular biology i.e. genes, DNA, RNA, mutations developed as a science makes for a bewitching read in the decade’s best popular science book Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi for those interested.
As all the movie’s threads: political, real, fantastical: converge, you have a thoroughly dramatic epic supernatural thriller that resonates long after you have seen it.
Visually accomplished, beautifully scored and unflinchingly real and tension-laden, it is peopled by probably the most charismatic acting crew (Fernando Tielve with that wizened child-man faceas the young Carlos, Eduardo-Abre Los Ojos-Noriega with a goosebump-inducingly devious turn as the irredeemable villian besides the supporting actors) who take every scene to the next level with the sheer amount of sympathy and spontaneity they are made to attack the lines with.
The cloaked mystery of the underground water tank in the kitchen, the fairy-tale like motifs (weighty gold ingots, the gash on ghost’s forehead perennially leaking a blood-fume which dissolves into liquid air surrounding the ghost), the socio-political/adult-child/real-surreal parallels operate with a flair seldom seen (the scenes leading upto the fatal catastrophe where the orphans are being rounded up and briefed in one room and simultaneously, a scandalous denouement is staged as the principal’s handicapped wife is threatened at knife-edge for locker’s keys by her young lover: all this through the POV of a confused, rifle-armed girlfriend of the knifer standing square in the middle); the backstory of Santi-the ghost, the thwarted rescue mission in a catastrophic fire where most guardians and saviours are slaughtered, the stabbing amidst the sun-scorched field, the heart-rending bond between the orphanage boys, the candid conversations and reactions, the raw violence, the searing drama and then the lilting, almost phantasmagorical contemplation on the nature of ghosts, the reasons found for the alternate supernatural courtesy the elegant eloquence of the intuitive and warm principal who reveals himself as the narrator: all this collectively make for a work of rare finesse.
And together with Del Toro’s own Labyrinth and the Swedish Let The Right One In make for the most compelling contemporary supernatural thrillers made with kids as the key protagonists. Enthusiasts of Del Toro’s cinema will revel in the anticipatory ring that some of the themes and key plot points have, with respect to later works like The Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Orphanage (2007). Simply superb!