The Devil’s Backbone begins when Carlos is brought to an orphanage/boarding school in the middle of nowhere in the Spanish desert. The school is run by a Spanish Republican woman and a doctor, who loves her, from Argentina. Recently, the school has become haunted by a poltergeist (what the boarded boys call ‘the one who sighs’). The story focuses on the boys and how Carlos, the new boy, is initiated into the group—to the surprise of the clique, Carlos has backbone enough to stand up not only for himself, but for the others around him. While on a dare, he makes first contact with the poltergeist. Carlos digs into the mystery and discovers that the spirit is of a boy murdered recently by one of the staff. All of this takes place as the Spanish Civil War is nearing an end, and not in a good way for those associated with the school. Too many more details would give away too much of the story.
On the main, I didn’t like the film. There is much to recommend it if anatomized; however, for me, when the pieces are put together it doesn’t rise above mediocre.
The motif of the story is the unexploded bomb that sits in the middle of the school’s courtyard. Though it is said to be defused, it still sits as a symbol of the impending doom for the Republican side in the Civil War and the potentially explosive tensions running through the school. This tension is enhanced by the artful use of music and imposing camerawork used without actors to create mood.
The acting is easily the best and most consistent aspect of the film. There are no weak performances and the majority of the cast is tweens and young teens. All of the characters were firm, believable and complex. I don’t recall seeing any of the actors before, but the performances in this one have made me curious enough to seek out other films starring them.
Special effects also shine. The method of showing the bleeding poltergeist is particularly eerie and stunning. It is sort of like watching Golem in The Lord of the Rings unpleasant to look at but eliciting a complicated sympathy.
For those who don’t want to know the twists and other plot devices, please stop here. The reason the movie fails for me is the story itself. It is a simple ghost-revenge story, nothing more. The acting and effects, the music and cinematography are all sort of wasted on the simplest of ghost stories. The ghost will only gain peace when he avenges his untimely end. Like the motif of the unexploded bomb in the courtyard, the story is also a dud.
As I said, taken apart for analysis, this movie should be brilliant. But when I see it as a whole, I can’t get past the notion that so much time and effort was taken to tell a hackneyed story that wasn’t either made more complex or more compelling by its telling.
I don’t want to pan it outright, so I recommend it with reservations.
What did you think of this review?