Casares: What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.
Before Guillermo del Toro would become a household name working on such franchises as Blade, Hellboy, The Hobbit and had the opportunity to craft such films as Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak he wrote and directed a smaller but equally affecting ghost story titled The Devil’s Backbone. While this film is certainly less flashy than any of the aforementioned films (not to mention the insane blockbuster, Pacific Rim) del Toro’s flair for fantastic realism and incredible ability to create gorgeously engulfing worlds are still extremely strong on this compelling early passion project.
The story begins with an enigmatic scene splicing between the death of a young boy and scenes of bombs being dropped. After a gorgeous title sequence the narrative begins with the main character, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) being dropped off at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. It seems that his father has been killed (though he is unaware of this fact) in the Spanish Civil War and his tutor is dropping him off in order to fight for the Republican cause. As Carlos is exploring his surroundings he becomes fascinated with a large bomb in the middle of the courtyard that had fallen and not exploded on the night of the opening sequence. Thus begins Carlos' exposure to the eerie aspects of his new home. Almost immediately after he settles in he finds himself being followed by “the one who wheezes,” a ghost child haunting the orphanage. While Carlos deals with the trials and tribulations of his new living situation, bullies, lovingly stern teachers, and a monster of a groundskeeper, the secrets and mysteries of the orphanage, both supernatural and human in nature, begin to unfold.
One of del Toro’s strengths that shines through in this film is his ability create a realistic yet beautiful setting in which the supernatural seems almost normal. The fact that this is a ghost story is almost secondary to the drama and narrative of Carlos and the boys/adults who inhabit the orphanage. While the setting is beautifully shot and carefully constructed in a cinematic way, the fantastic elements seem to fit seamlessly into the more historical and real world of rural Spain circa 1939.
Another area where this film shines is the way in which del Toro tells the story from the perspective of Carlos and the other children. Similarly to Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) del Toro is able to beautifully and honestly capture what it is like to be young during a specific time and place. For Malle the backdrop was WWII, for Ramsay it was the Glasgow Dustmen strike, and for del Toro it’s the Spanish Civil War. All three films beautifully show the ways that children naïvely yet poignantly deal with intense circumstances. Another thing that all of these films have in common is the fact that the children who portray the leads are all perfectly cast and play the characters in a way that feel raw, emotional, yet subtle. Specifically Fernando Tielve, who plays Carlos, and Inigo Garces, who plays the complicated bully Jaime, do an amazing job of bringing their character to relatable and believable life.
On top of the fact that the film is a beautifully crafted piece about children in extreme circumstances, it is an extremely creepy and thrilling ghost story and mystery. A certain eeriness stalks the viewer through the entire film, keeping you on the edge of your seat, always wondering what hides in the shadows. In the opening sequence of the film we see Jaime, distraught, as a young boy has been killed. The details of this scene and the mystery of the ghost boy slowly come to light as the film plays on, and all of the answers come to light in an unexpected and intense crescendo.
Simply put, I would love to turn you onto this film because it is not only one of the most fantastic and enigmatic ghost stories of our time, but it is also a poignant portrayal of youth in time of strife. When a film comes around that transcends genre in order to be not only a good horror film or a good drama or a great historical fiction, that is the hallmark of a brilliant film. That is what del Toro's The Devil's Backbone is, a brilliant film. Check it out, you will not regret it!
- Edward Hill