I took a break from the serious with yesterday’s movie, the completely absurd 1986’s House. Today I’m back with the haunted children. And it’s another foreign film. But that’s cool. It’s Guillermo del Toro so I know we’re in good hands.
The Devil’s Backbone – Spain, 2001. Dir. & Screenplay Guillermo del Toro. Starring Fernando Tielve, Frederico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega, Inigo Garces.
Wow, so I’ve watched a lot of movies already this month and I have to say that today’s is one of my favorites so far. And I was expecting to like it, I’ve heard nothing but good things about it, I don’t really know why I’m so surprised by how much I liked it.
The Devil’s Backbone is another one of those movies that somehow managed to sneak by me. I remember when it came out, I know a lot of people have told me I need to see it, and I love Guillermo Del Toro. Don’t ask me how I’ve made it this long without seeing this movie. It’s a mystery!
But I’ve seen it now and hey, I’ll say it. I’m in love with this movie. It’s just about everything I love in a good ghost story. I maybe didn’t find it super frightening but there’s so much going on, so many wonderful things to get excited about, that I don’t really need it to be scary.
The film is set at the end of the Spanish Civil War. A young boy, Carlos, is dropped off at a school for boys in the middle of the desert by his tutor. We learn early on that Carlos’s father has been killed and that his tutor is really fighting in the war as well. Carlos doesn’t know he’s to be left there but Dr. Casaras, one of the caretakers still left at the orphanage, takes Carlos under his wing and soon Carlos is making friends and rivals. He’s also discovering secrets. And possibly a ghost.
I wish I knew more about the Spanish Civil War for context but really the movie gives us all of the information we need. We know it’s towards the end of the way. And we know that the adults running the school are on the losing side. There are secrets within secrets. There is love, lust, betrayal, death. The story is drowning in tragedy. As the newcomer, Carlos is in the unique position to see events with clear, unbiased eyes and find the truth.
But will he find the truth before disaster strikes and a terrible prophecy comes true.
The Devil’s Backbone gives unravels its mysteries slowly, keeping our attention rapt and drawing us in. It’s a love story, a coming of age story, a war story, and even a western. But at it’s heart it is a ghost story and a story of revenge and justice.
I couldn’t help but falling in love with these characters. Even the villain, while certainly not forgivable or really even likeable, is a sad figure. These people all suffer so much, it’s a story about the costs of war.
Carlos faces the ghost of this story as only a child can I think. Bravely and directly, in spite of his fear. Oh and there are moments when his fear is palpable. The scene in the hallway where he eventually hides in the laundry closet comes to mind.
I love the visuals in this film. It’s beautifully done and the ghost boy is fantastic. This isn’t a banging on walls, swinging chandeliers kind of ghost movie. It’s a shadow on the walls, whispers on the wind kind. There are elements of the horrible and fantastical that del Toro uses again in his later films like Pan’s Labyrinth. it’s effective and poignant.
We come back to some of the familiar ideas in the haunting though – the ghost wants something, has asked for help, and he must get what he want. Carlos is direct in asking the ghost these questions and once he discovers the answers, he’s determined to give the ghost what it wants. Understandably so, too.
This movie also asks the question, What is a ghost? And the answer? Well, it wasn’t one I was expecting.
The school where this story plays out is haunted in so many ways. In the literal sense, it’s haunted by the boy the other students call “the one who sighs.” It’s also haunted by the past, it’s haunted by the memory of those dead in the war, it’s haunted by lost loves and lovers that can never be.
It’s a story that instead of scaring me, mostly made me want to cry. Carlos is not the only brave one here, and the way the others all show their bravery, the way they meet their fates, is heartbreaking. It’s appropriate that this is a ghost story set against a war.
I feel like I’m about to ramble off into spoiler territory so I’ll stop here. This movie is wonderful and it’s easily one of my favorites of the month. I loved it.