The Devil's Backbone

A darkly shimmering ghost story that's set in the late 1930s against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The story unfolds within the eerily suspended world of a hardscrabble rural boarding school, home to war orphans and boys whose parents are too hard-pressed to keep them. Ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) doesn't know he's alone in the world: His...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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A darkly shimmering ghost story that's set in the late 1930s against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The story unfolds within the eerily suspended world of a hardscrabble rural boarding school, home to war orphans and boys whose parents are too hard-pressed to keep them. Ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) doesn't know he's alone in the world: His father's compadres have shielded him from the knowledge that his father died fighting for the Republicans. But they can't babysit forever, so Carlos is deposited at the Santa Lucia School, whose starchy headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), sacrificed both her husband and a limb to the cause. She walks with the aid of a wooden leg and runs the school with her late husband's best friend, Casares (Federico Luppi), whose love for her is frustrated by his impotence. Miles from the nearest town and surrounded by a high wall, the school's dusty courtyard is dominated by an enormous bomb, nose buried in the earth, fins aimed at the scorching sky. It fell during a raging storm and miraculously failed to explode; defused, it bears silent witness to an ever-present threat of violence. Carlos quickly befriends some of the other lost boys, but runs afoul of adolescent bully Jaime (Iñigo Garces), who seems to harbor some dark secret. Carlos also learns to avoid caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who lives on the grounds with his gentle girlfriend (Irene Visedo). Jacinto was abandoned at Santa Lucia and bitterly resents his limited prospects: A fascist at heart (if not by overt affiliation), he vents his bitterness on the students who evoke his own childhood vulnerability. Jacinto remains because he knows that somewhere on the grounds there's a cache of gold Carmen is guarding for the Republican militia; he plans to steal it and abscond. And mixed into this maelstrom of political and psychological turmoil is a small, sighing phantom who reveals himself to Carlos. The ghost wanders the halls at night, surrounded by a watery nimbus stained with a floating trail of blood: Could it be Jaime's friend Santi (Junio Valverde), who disappeared the night the bomb fell; and if so, what does he want? As subtly disturbing as THE HAUNTING (1963) or THE INNOCENTS (1961), Guillermo del Toro's brooding ghost story is rich with psychological and political implications that never obscure its fundamental creepiness. The term "devil's backbone" alludes to a congenital deformity; it's occasioned by the haunting image of a malformed fetus in a jar but evokes the oppressive specter of spiritual malformation.

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