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The Devils Backbone Film Review - El espinazo del diablo
The Devils Backbone
The Devils Backbone
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Released in 2001
The year is 1939 and Spain is coming to the end of a bloody Civil War. A young boy, Carlos, is taken to an orphanage after unknown to him, his father is killed on the front. The orphanage is home to a small group of boys in the same situation as Carlos and is run by a Doctor and a headmistress called Carmen. Early in his stay, Carlos believes he sees a ghost, and after telling other boys, he learns the story of Santi, a boy that disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
As the Civil War rages across Spain, a young boy named Carlos becomes yet another fatherless son and his fate his dictated by his Tutor. He is not told that his father has died and he is sent to an orphanage far enough from any town to keep them distanced from the turmoils that engulf the rest of the country.
Carlos's arrival is greeted in different ways from the varied ensemble that live and work in the orphanage. Most of the boys seem keen to find out as much as they can about the new arrival and he returns their interest, but the eldest boy, Jaime, and his under study are decidedly hostile and make every effort to make his initial time in his new surroundings uncomfortable. Carlos is given the bed of the boy who has disappeared and on his first night in the orphanage he hears sighs and sees shadows when there seems to be nothing there. This is where we see the mind and thought process of a child take over. Instead of fear, we are shown intrigue and a wanting to investigate the unknown.
Jaime and Carlos leave the dorm to refill jugs of water that have been knocked over by the 'ghost'. After entering another section of the building to fill the water jugs, Jaime leaves Carlos and after a disturbance Jacinto, a young man who works at the orphanage, comes to investigate the noise. In this room we get the impression Jacinto is not comfortable and he leaves, padlocking the door. Carlos leaves his hiding place, yet again to feel the presence of the ghost. Descending in to an old cellar he finds a pit filled with dirty water. This is where we are introduced properly to the ghost, Santi. Decomposed, with an aura of water surrounding him and blood streaming from a head wound, Santi delivers a message to Carlos, "Many of you will die".
Within the main story of discovering the truth behind Santi's death, a sub plot plays out involving Jacinto and his desire to discover the gold that is held in a safe that is the source of how Carmen is able to run the orphanage. Jacinto uses his his youth and good looks to seduce Carmen and secretly steal keys to try to gain access to the safe.
As the war comes ever closer to this small community, a bond begins to build between the boys as they realise that they are stronger together and that they have strength in numbers against the common enemy. Carlos's tie to Santi becomes more developed but he finds it hard to make the final step towards truly understanding the dead boy's need to still be here.
After a desperate and violent attempt by Jacinto to to steal the gold, some of the boys and ultimately Carmen are killed. It is only now that the truth behind santi's death is revealed. Now more than ever the resolve that the boys have developed will be displayed in the ultimate test of friendship.
Guilermo Del Toro delivers a beautiful tale of friendship, pain and test of belief. The emotions that play out between all of the characters are conveyed with on a wholly believable level. In a time when Spain's people were being tested to their end, we see the love and desperation of a small community and the ends that they were willing to go to, to fight for what they believed was right.
In the end, this is a ghost story, and we have all the elements of a tormented and unholy death that creates a wandering entity, lost between this world and the next looking for peace. We are also shown that everything seen through the eyes of a child is untainted. Carlos is rightly fearful of the ghost Santi, but he does not run, he does not try to destroy him, he wants to understand and ultimately help his fellow man.
A beautifully acted and wonderfully told story. Del Toro truly is the master of the fairy tale.