The Devil’s Backbone takes place at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War (in Spain, obviously). The film follows Fernando Tielve as he arrives and has conflicts with the other boys, before everything gets worked out. For about half the film, one of the other boys, Íñigo Garcés, is the antagonist. But everything with the boys is basically a misunderstanding and, in the second half, the film introduces the real villain.
There’s also a ghost, some political unrest, unrequited love between the school doctor and the headmistress, lust, greed and an unexploded bomb. Director del Toro goes overboard with the symbolism; for much of the film, it works too. He tries to be way too tidy in the end, however, and it doesn’t work. He refocuses the story away from Tielve and Garcés and the other boys–greed and lust are the (literal) apple here–but the boys have nothing to do with them. They lose their story.
It’s too bad, but there’s still a lot of great work in the film. del Toro’s direction, Guillermo Navarro’s photography and Javier Navarrete’s music are all phenomenal. Luis de la Madrid’s editing hangs a little, but usually for symbolism’s sake, which might be del Toro’s fault.
Tielve and Garcés are both excellent. As the adults, Federico Luppi and Marisa Paredes are great. In the film’s most difficult role–an orphan grown-up and returned–Eduardo Noriega does okay, but better when it matters.
Backbone’s almost an excellent film. Very, very close.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Luis de la Madrid; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, César Macarrón; produced by Agustín Almodóvar and Bertha Navarro; released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Starring Fernando Tielve (Carlos), Íñigo Garcés (Jaime), Marisa Paredes (Carmen), Eduardo Noriega (Jacinto), Federico Luppi (Dr. Casares), Irene Visedo (Conchita) and Adrián Lamana (Gálvez).