The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – Guillermo del Toro

There are secrets here, in this boys’ orphanage. And there are truths.

Guillermo del Toro is one of those filmmakers that I will watch his films no matter what he does. He’s masterful, and makes poignant emotive pieces that seem to transcend genres, but I’m glad this ghost story, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s has found its way to the 101 Horror Movies list.

It’s a film filled with the innocence of youth, love, betrayal, and the destructiveness of man.

Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at an orphanage, left there by friends of his father (who has been killed in the fighting, though Carlos doesn’t know this). He bumps up against Jaime (Inigo Garces), who one could mistakenly miscast as a bully, but he is just one more of the secrets the orphanage keeps.

There are also rumors of a ghost, referred to as ‘the one who sighs,’ who provides Carlos with the ominous threat, or warning… “Many of you will die.”

Hiding in the shadows of the orphanage is not only a ghost, but unspoken love, comic books, an unexploded bomb, coveted gold, and schemes.

Carlos has many troubling encounters with the ghost, a dead boy named Santi (Junio Valverde) and with each appearance del Toro does a masterful job of making it creepy, supernatural, and yet, completely in its place in the world he has created. The boys temple is always spilling blood, which trails up around is head, as if he’s still underwater, where his corpse is, also implied by the small amounts of detritus and air bubbles seen floating around him. It’s a really nice effect, and coupled with the makeup work, which makes the boy’s skin looks almost translucent, revealing the skeleton beneath the dead flesh, you have no doubt that it’s an actual ghost.

The cast of characters surrounding the boys of the orphanage fills out a reality that takes you in completely. There’s Doctor Casares (Federico Luppi), the head mistress and teacher Carmen (Marisa Paredes) who moves about on a fake leg, Conchita (Irene Visedo) and the treacherous if not downright evil Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega).

The things I enjoy about the del Toro’s films are not only the settings, but the way they are so completely populated by real people. No one in the film is black and white, every single one of them, small character or not, is layered has faults and secrets.

Casares is a wonderful character, paternal, and though he does what’s right for everyone, he doesn’t always do right by himself, keeping his love for Carmen quiet for some twenty years, happy instead to simply be by her side.

I love how del Toro crafts his film, showing you bits and pieces, letting you see the world, and then allowing you to connect everything together, Carmen’s missing keys, Santi’s story, Jacinto’s motivations. I love how the story all fits together, all the threads of the film are tied up by its end, the opening narration returns to close the film, and this time gives you a whole new understanding of what is being said.

It’s a gorgeously crafted film, featuring one of my favorite filmmakers, and while Pan’s Labyrinth is still my undeniably favorite film he’s done, this one is amazing.

What’s your favorite film from Guillermo?

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