'Devil's Backbone': A Haunting Ghost Story

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2002

IN "THE Devil's Backbone," contact with the other side is more user-friendly than we'd normally expect from a ghost story.

Guillermo del Toro's beautifully wrought movie, about a cursed orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, has closer links to South American magical realism than Gothic scariness.

Although living characters are wary of the dead, they seem to have a closer connection to those spirits when they see them. They don't jump up and down with fright. They respect these things.

"What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over?" asks the narrator, Professor Casares (Federico Luppi), at the beginning of the movie. "Something dead which appears at times alive. A sentiment suspended in time," he suggests.

Clearly, we're going to see something more interesting than a guy with a ski mask and hatchet.

Casares heads the Santa Lucia School, which shelters orphans of the Republican militia during the 1930s. And as the war enters its final throes, the 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) enters the school.

Forced to adapt quickly to his new world, Carlos sleeps in a dormitory full of hungry, prematurely jaded students.

The toughest of all is Jaime (Inigo Garces), an older boy who immediately imposes his authority on Carlos. Surly caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega, who starred in "Open Your Eyes," the Spanish precursor to "Vanilla Sky), who first came to Santa Lucia as an orphan 15 years before, is another hostile presence. And the classes are run by the imperial headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), whose prothestic leg adds to her steely mystery.

But there's more to Santa Lucia than rough-tough orphans, strange staff and the raging war beyond its walls. There are secrets, Carlos learns. They start with an unexploded, now defused bomb that sits nose-deep in the ground next to the school.

After it fell, students say, a boy named Santi disappeared. Since Santi vanished, it seems, strange things have been happening. Candles are extinguished suddenly. A jug of water totters and crashes to the floor. Disembodied sighs often break the silence. It's Santi, the boys say. They call him "the one who sighs."

Carlos sleeps in bed No. 12, which was Santi's.

Paredes (who appeared in Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother" and Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful") and Luppi (who was in del Toro's "Cronos") bring gravitas and sensuality to the movie. Carmen, for instance, may seem like an imposing figure – a sort of Spanish version of Mrs. Danvers from "Rebecca." But she's full of unmet, sexual needs. And Professor Casares, an imposing but simpatico man, has no compunction about discussing male impotence with little Carlos.

The air of sensuality is very much the film's operating style. Although the story includes damp cellars, hauntingly empty dormitories and gelatinous slugs, there's something so warm about the color scheme that you never recoil. And the ghostly presence in this place is subtly, even elegantly defined by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro's deft, gliding camera and Javier Navarrete's lush, classically Hitchcockian score. Del Toro has made a ghost story that's not only evocative and original, it's a pleasure to watch.

THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (R, 106 minutes)Contains violence, some obscenity and sexual content. In Spanish with subtitles. At Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company