I watched this film in Spanish, although it is available with English subtitles as well. This screenplay was written (with some collaborators) and directed by the incredibly talented Guillermo del Toro and centers on a haunted orphanage in a remote part of Spain in 1939, the last year of the brutal Spanish Civil War. It is sold as a ghost story, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. Certainly, there is a ghost in the story (several, in fact), a young murdered boy, Santi (Junio Valverde), but it’s not a “ghost story” in the traditional manner. It’s not about scaring the audience, it’s more about the ghosts of life that drive each of us.
Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of loyalists who leave him in the care of his tutor before being killed by Franco’s forces, is left by his beloved tutor at a distant orphanage in a town with a large, un-exploded (but de-activated) bomb in the center of town. Carlos is small and, as the newest boy in the orphanage, is challenged by Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), the resident bully, to fetch water from the kitchen after lights-out, a violation of the rules. Carlos agrees, as long as Jaime accompanies him. Jaime abandons Carlos, who stumbles into a storage area with a large cistern, where he hears a whispered warning of impending death for all. He has a run-in with the handyman Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who is not happy to see him near this particular area. Carlos manages to get back to the dormitory, which (along with taking the blame for being out in violation of the rules and taking blame for owning a knife which Jacinto finds– and uses to slash his face), earns Carlos some respect from the other boys.
Carlos visits Dr. Casares (the venerable Federico Luppi), who addresses his cut. A large jar containing a fetus with a severe spina bifida malformation– most of its spine is exposed– resides in a glass jar in the doctor’s office. The doctor tells Carlos that this is known as a “Devil’s Backbone” and explains that the orphanage brings in extra money by selling quantities of the spiced rum this and other specimens are kept in as a cure-all to the villagers. The doctor claims this rum can even cure impotence, and is later seen ingesting the rum himself. Dr. Casares is in love with Carmen (the equally venerable Marisa Paredes), headmistress of the orphanage who has a heavy artificial leg she must drag around in order to walk. Although she beats herself up over it and continues to insist that this time will be the last time, Carmen has a sexual relationship with Jacinto, each encounter overheard by the brokenhearted, but impotent Dr. Casares. Jacinto was once an orphan in the care of the orphanage, and has a genuine hatred for the place, yet stays on as caretaker. He uses the key his girlfriend, Conchita (Irene Visedo), has as a teacher at the orphanage to search for gold. He knows that Dr. Casares and Carmen are loyalist sympathizers who have hidden gold that was dropped off my men fighting Franco for safekeeping. He intends to find the gold and steal it for himself, before leaving the orphanage and town behind forever.
Carlos investigates the idea of a ghost and is told by the other boys that they believe it is Santi, a young boy who disappeared the night the bomb fell on the town. Carlos also posits that Jaime knows more about Santi’s fate than he is willing to admit. The war is coming ever closer, and Dr. Casares convinces Carmen that they must flee the orphanage. As they begin gathering the children, it is discovered that Jacinto, who had been shot and sent running by Conchita, has returned and poured gasoline all over the orphanage. He sets fire to the gasoline, which blows up the kitchen where Carmen and some of the children had gathered. Carmen is killed, but Dr. Casares survives as he was just outside the building, loading children into a vehicle. He holds Carmen as she dies in his arms, and tells the surviving children, Carlos and Jaime included, that he will protect them. Dr. Casares and the kids spend the night in the charred remains of the orphanage, an injured Dr. Casares sitting in front of an open window on the second floor, looking out for Jacinto’s return, shotgun at the ready. Jaime finally tells Carlos the story of Santi’s death. He and Santi were in the room with the cistern, hoping to collect slugs, when they witnessed Jacinto trying to break into a safe that he believed contained the loyalist’s gold. Jaime managed to hide before being caught, but Santi was seen by Jacinto. Jacinto struck Santi and the boy hit his head on the rocks surrounding the cistern. Jacinto got rid of the body by dumping it into the cistern. Thus, a ghost was born. Jaime has decided that he is no longer afraid of Jacinto, and vows to kill him if he ever sees him again.
In the morning, the boys discover that Dr. Casares has succumbed to his wounds, still keeping watch at the window. The boys are caught by Jacinto and locked into a small room. Jacinto continues to search for the gold, but the boys know he will kill them once he has found it. They scheme together to take him down, rationalizing that there are several of them and only one him. They create weapons out of things that are at hand, and are able to escape the room with the help of Santi’s ghost. Jacinto finds the gold (I won’t tell you where), but encounters the boys down in the room with the cistern. In a scene reminiscent of Ceasar’s murder at the hand of the senators, the boys all stab Jacinto, and he is dumped into the same cistern where he had dumped Santi’s body. Jacinto struggles to escape from the cistern but, in a bit of ironic justice, he is impeded in his efforts by his gold-laden pockets. The ghost of Santi comes up from the deep and helps to drag Jacinto to his death. The boys are free and walk away from the orphanage, the ghost of Dr. Casares still keeping watch over them.
I am a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. He has managed, despite massive commercial success, to continue to create projects in the manner of an independent filmmaker, slowly, meticulously, telling unique stories from a distinct point of view. All of his movies have a feel that identify them as his work, but they are not mere copies. This film, in particular, showcases the exceptional talents of the two older leads, Luppi and Paredes. Though not necessarily well-known in the States, they have had long and distinguished careers overseas. They are enormously talented and I was particularly drawn to Luppi’s interpretation of Dr. Casares; warm and gentle, sad and strong. The scene where, heavily injured, he insists on keeping a look out for Jacinto from the second floor are particularly touching. This is why I love watching independent foreign films so much…the stories are strong, the acting stronger.