The Devil’s Backbone – Guillermo Del Toro – 2001

What is a ghost? These are the words that open up Guillermo Del Toro’s fascinating 3rd feature film: The Devil’s Backbone. And he answers with aplomb. The story is littered with phantasms both living and dead.

Jacinto the handsome villain of the piece is beholden to no one but belongs to no one, the morality of his childhood long tarnished by the injustices of war. His lover, Carmen a woman with one leg who owns an orphanage left to her by her dead Marxist husband, secretly needs Jacinto’s lust but must fulfill her obligations to the children. Dr. Casares, the physician of the orphanage, madly in love with Carmen, is willing to throw anything away for her safety. Each of these adults is rife with compromise in the name of their own lust, a ghost of what they might have been in youth.

Carlos, a young boy is taken to this orphanage of secrets and lies and left behind by his tutor when, unbeknownst to the child, his father is killed at war. The setting of the Spanish civil war makes a rich and desolate backdrop for this tale of haunted removal. Carlos is assigned to sleep in a bed previously occupied by a boy named Santi, who has gone missing. Carlos is an intelligent and precocious child who is not easily coerced by his new associates but when a dare to fetch some water at midnight is taken Carlos discovers ghastly visions below. The ghost of Santi haunts this orphanage and will not rest without vindication.

Del Toro handles with a masters’ hand both the frightening and mysterious aspects of the tale, giving only small details about Santis demise. Throughout the telling the rouge that is Jacinto becomes evident and a character you might have empathized with becomes almost completely inhuman. His treatment of Conchita alone is reprehensible to the point of hatred.

Though Jacinto is clearly the evil in the story and Santi’s ultimate reprisal is the point, the most interesting notes of the story come from Carmen and Dr. Casares. She is willing to break the one man’s heart who actually loves her in order to feed the desires of her flesh, yet she will not abandon the children when Casares is convinced that they are discovered and executioners are imminent. These very human flaws and the extreme circumstances provided by the war elevate the film from and exciting supernatural coming-of-age tale into a poetic rumination about war and the ideas that can linger long after a violent act has occurred.

What is a ghost? A story that has yet to be finished, a blade waiting to fall, the sound of lovers through a wall, a protector from beyond the grave. There are many ghosts in The Devil’s Backbone, but they are specters I love to re-visit.

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