Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s 3rd film is the finely crafted gothic fairy tale “The Devil’s Backbone”. This critically acclaimed film was released in 2001, four years after the disappointing experience of “Mimic”. It’s a Spanish language ghost story that takes place at the end of the Spanish civil war in an isolated and ominous looking orphanage.
The film is full of atmosphere and mystery surrounding a tragic event that happens not so long ago. When Carlos, a twelve-year-old boy, arrives he brings with him a youthful innocence and hope for a place that has all but lost it. He has been left there by his uncle after his father’s death in the war. He panics at first with the idea of being abandon there, but like all of the other children, he has no choice. The place is run by headmistress Carmen, whose prosthetic leg becomes heavier, and heavier over time. Her husband is Dr. Casaras, played by Federico Luppi the lead actor in “Cronos”. Their relationship is strained and since Casares is impotent Carmen has been sleeping with the angry and lonesome Jacinto. Jacinto has his own nefarious plans and has been slowly biding his time until he can get his hands on all of the gold bars in the safe. Then there is Conchita, the sweet young girl who is in love with Jacinto.
An unexploded and rusty bomb rests in the center of the courtyard. Its a symbol for so many things in the film and is a sign of things to come. At the center of all this moody darkness is a group of orphans leads by the older Jaime who bullies and harasses Carlos. It doesn’t take long for Carlos to begin seeing “the ghost that sighs”. His name is Santi and he disappeared from the orphanage and presumed to have run away. Santi looks like a cracked porcelain doll with a billowing cloud of blood coming from a wound in his head. Carlos and others are terrified of the ghost but what does it want? Santi does warn of more death to come.
The war continues to take its toll on its people as well as the orphanage. All of its inhabitants are bound that this place with little hope for the future. Jacinto is a passionate but dangerous character who gets exiled from the place after a violent attack on the children. Jaime’s character evolves beautifully throughout the film as he transitions from being a child to a man and a leader. Carlos faces his fears and learns of Santi’s story and his only request is vengeance for the person who killed him. Santi is not meant to be a so-called scary ghost, but a trapped soul looking for justice.
When Jacinto returns he no longer holds back his anger and rage and is hellbent and destroying everything and everyone. Left to there own devices the children must fight for there survival more than ever before. Can hope survive? Del Toro tells a remarkable story and doesn’t cop out with any cheap Hollywood crap. It doesn’t offer any easy answers or shortcuts but is an honest depiction of its characters. Del Toro’s later film “Pan’s Labyrinth” is quite similar but stars a girl in the lead role. They are meant to be companion films.
“The Devil’s Backbone” is available on disc from The Criterion Collection.