Film Reviews:

The Devil's Backbone

(Guillermo del Toro, Mexico, 2001)

Set in an run-down boys school during the Spanish Civil War, The Devil's Backbone focuses on new arrival Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a small boy who is immediately a target for the resident bully. He is also singled out by the ghost of the dead boy Santi (Junio Valverde), whose bed he is given. Meanwhile, a romantic triangle plays out as aged head teacher Casares, (Federico Luppi) longs for Carmen (Marisa Peredes) who is secretly sleeping with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a grown up former pupil who she wants only for sex. An unexploded bomb sits in the centre of the schoolyard, and is believed by the boys to be still active. Although the school has seemingly escaped destruction, the clock is still ticking. The ghost predicts that many in the school will die, and so it proves, as the inhabitants of the school find that the violence of the times comes to meet them.

The Devil's Backbone is equal parts ghost story, and intense, romantic drama. The ghost is effectively done, and Carlos' encounters with it are imaginative and creepy. But what overshadows both of these storylines, and informs them, is the Civil War. As exciting and as shamelessly manipulative as any Hollywood blockbuster, The Devil's Backbone goes all out to create an engaging, thrilling, and somewhat emotionally overwrought story, with the aim of shedding light on Spain's time under fascist rule. The characters and setting seem heavily symbolic. If the school is Spain, then the aged teachers are the past, the young boys the future, and the ghost the innocent victims. Jacinto, the young adult who invites the war in because of his own greed, is an angry condemnation of the generation who let Franco take over, and a villain so utterly hateful and beyond basic humanity that it is hard to feel anything but anger for him. So inhuman is he, that the film finally presents him as being like an enraged bull, stampeding in the ring.

The Devil's Backbone carries you through a range of emotions, literally from laughter to tears, with effective scares along the way. It leaves you feeling wrung out by the passionate drama of it all. But it does all this to remind you of the time when the culture that produced Picasso, Dali and Gaudi was threatened with destruction.

Adrian Horrocks

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