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flick pick | The Devil's Backbone 2001
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz
Starring: Eduardo Noriego, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve, Íñigo Garcés
Language: Spanish
Look for it at the video store under: foreign [Spain], drama, suspense/thriller
Watch it when you’re in the mood for something: artsy-fartsy
The critic says: / 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5 

Plot synopsis In the final days of the Spanish Civil War, a young boy named Carlos finds himself unexpectedly abandoned by his tutor in the dusty crumbling confines of the remote Santa Lucia School. As the fascists have gained the upper hand, the school has come to function as an orphanage for boys like Carlos -- the children of dead Republican militiamen and politicians, people who shared the leftist political leanings of the school's headmistress, Carmen, and headmaster, Dr. Casares. As the adults at the school find themselves increasingly concerned about the political climate, the children have worries of their own. A ghost has been heard around the school. Known as The One That Sighs, the ghost first appeared just after the strange rainy night when a fascist warplane dropped a bomb on the school - and both the ghost and the bomb, which continues to sit undetonated in the courtyard, have been unsettling the boys ever since. Although the boys aren't certain, they think the ghost might be a former student named Santi, who disappeared on the night the bomb dropped. Santi, as it turns out, was the previous occupant of Carlos' bed at the orphanage, and soon, Carlos finds himself haunted by visits from the spectral boy, who appears as a mournful white-faced form with a plume of blood wafting from his smashed head. As Carlos gets to know more about the strange goings-on at the school, he begins to uncover the dark secrets of both the ghost, and the school's inhabitants.

Review In the horror movie genre, ghosts aren't generally given the benefit of depth. Their purpose is simple: to chill and to thrill, to leave you scared out of your wits even as you sit on the edge of your seat, eager to see what they'll do next. The ghost in Guillermo del Toro's genre-bending The Devil's Backbone, however, has a greater reason for being. As the film's opening plaints, "What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again." Ghosts, in del Toro's world, aren't just scary. They're creepy and horrific, yes, but also sad and complicated; they're the terrible things in our past that we don't want to think about … and the things we have to acknowledge, to confront, to understand, if we don't want to make the same mistakes in our futures. So there are really two ghost stories in del Toro's movie, the mystery of the murdered Santi, and the tragic loss of innocent lives that occurred during Spain's bloody, brutal Civil War. What starts off looking like your standard -- albeit visually spectacular -- horror/suspense flick turns into a political drama, a historical lament, a classic melodrama, and a boy's adventure story, all deftly rolled into a single intriguing package. In the hands of a less skillful director and a less talented cast, the movie easily could have easily been an incomprehensible mess. But both del Toro and his actors do a stellar job of letting the story and characters unfold at their own natural -- and yes, sometimes slow -- pace. Even when characters do 180-degree turnarounds, revealing themselves to be exactly the opposite of who you thought they were, the surprise seems totally believable, never forced. Despite the fact that the ghost forms the core of the movie's mystery, it's the people that provide the real intrigue. The Devil's Backbone shows that the best ghost stories aren't really about the supernatural at all. They're about something much more mundane and a whole lot more interesting: plain old human beings, and the sometimes ugly, horrible things we do. So what is a ghost? It's the side of man that we like to pretend doesn't exist, even as it refuses to be ignored. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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