I came to The Devil's Backbone (2001) after having been introduced to director Guillermo del Toro through his Oscar winning Pan's Labyrinth. I had seen del Toro's Hollywood efforts Hellboy and Mimic, but those more conventional films don't do this director's unique vision justice. On the commentary track of the DVD (del Toro calls it a "ramble"), del Toro declares his affinity for genre-busting and spends time annotating the historical roots of the Gothic romance. The Devil's Backbone combines Gothic romance with the historical facts of the Spanish Civil War, though for most of the film the war is a distant threat.
The "fresh set of eyes" that del Toro's Gothic vision requires belong to 12-year old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who is left at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere in the film's opening scene. Carlos brings with him a collection of comics and other knick-knacks, and quickly has one of his possessions taken by school bully Jaime (Inigo Garces). The school is run by the principal Carmen (Marisa Paredes) with assistance from elderly Doctor Casares (Federico Luppi), who carries a torch for the headmistress.
All is not right spiritually at the school; the boys speak of a ghost called the "one who sighs" and Jaime seems to grow defensive every time a missing student named Santi (Junio Valverde) is mentioned. A figure that appears to be Santi's ghost appears to Carlos upon his arrival at the school, but who he is and what he wants isn't clear until quite late in the film.
Despite del Toro's historical and literary analysis of The Devil's Backbone, I'd argue that it shares a key political theme with Pan's Labyrinth. Both films take place in wartime, and children's lives are ravaged by contact with those in thrall to ideology. In this case the villain is a caretaker named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who's after a cache of Republican gold that's hidden at the orphanage. When ideology reigns, who'll look after the children?
I haven't nearly done The Devil's Backbone justice. How to describe del Toro's masterful control over mood, anticipation, or the camaraderie of young boys. (The young actors are uniformly excellent) We learned at this year's Cannes Festival that world cinema is alive and well. Guillermo del Toro is one of its most promising and important young practitioners.