Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, starring Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega, Inigo Garces, Fernando Tielve and Irene Visedo.
The third offering from Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, 'The Devil's Backbone' is a supernatural allegory set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. An old-fashioned, multi-layered tale, the film opens with ten year-old Carlos (Tielve) being dispatched to Santa Lucia School. This remote orphanage provides refuge from the horror of the conflict, sheltering the children of the dead Republican militia.
The school is run by the one-legged matriarch Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and the erudite and honourable Professor Casares (Luppi). Among the other adults in the orphanage are Jacinto (Noriega), raised there and now a deceitful drudge, and the kindly cook Conchita (Visedo). It's not long before Carlos becomes aware of the power struggles which permeate his new surroundings. Resented by the eldest boy Jaime (Garces), Carlos is forced to earn the respect of his peers by infringing the rules and subsequently challenging the authority of the institution. He eventually succeeds, but Jaime harbours a dark secret, furtive knowledge that simultaneously bonds the two boys and acts as a barrier to friendship.
The power struggle of the adult realm takes place in the triangle of Casares, Carmen, and Jacinto. While the Professor provides loving, rock-solid support for the headmistress, he is unable to gratify her sexual needs. For this purpose she turns to Jacinto, a man so poisoned with hatred for the orphanage that his every waking hour is spent scheming of how to get his hands on the gold that is said to be housed within its walls.
The supernatural element of the story is juxtaposed with the history of an unexploded Nazi shell that lies in the centre of the schoolyard. On the night the bomb was dropped, a young boy named Santi disappeared, and his absence remains unexplained. It appears, however, that Santi may have come to a tragic end as the school reverberates to the rumours of nocturnal appearances of "the one who sighs". What is the mystery of Santi's disappearance? What secret is Jaime hiding? What really happened on the night in question?
An old-fashioned tale that is rarely frightening but often unsettling, 'The Devil's Backbone' is part gothic horror, part political polemic and part exploration of the events that accelerate the onset of adulthood. Atmospheric in detail, the film's visuals are its strongest point, all bright amber in the daytime and creepy moonlight green by night. Arguably a little weak in the characterisation, this remains a solid effort.