The Devil’s Backbone

(2001) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 08/03/02

The Devil’s Backbone is an elegant nightmare of a children’s story set against the historical backdrop of the Spanish-American war. Beautifully produced and consistantly interesting, it is a very good film.

Set in an orphanage in the middle of the desert, the narrative tends toward the gothic, with ghosts, a hidden stash of gold bricks, and an old headmistress with a wooden leg. The orphanage is a haunted place, both literally and figuratively. All of the characters seem to have a good deal of melodramatic history hanging about them. There is a defused bomb standing in the center of the courtyard, a looming reminder of the threat of death that lurks so close to all of the characters.

It’s almost downright classical, like Henry James or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden turned evil. It’s a children’s story in many ways, told mostly from the perspective of Carlos, the recently orphaned protagonist. The fears of abandonment, ostracism, and death are keenly aligned with Carlos’s perception. However, the point-of-view is not utterly attached to the singular third person character of Carlos.

And really, if this was truly a children’s film, it would give serious nightmares to under-aged viewers.

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