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The Devil's Backbone

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The distinguished head of an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, Federico Luppi (Men With Guns) takes great pride in his reputation as a man of science. In dismissing the superstitious fear of a new charge (Fernando Tielve), Luppi explains the foolishness surrounding the fetus kept in a jar on his desk, the one with the exposed spine that the residents of the nearest town call "the devil's backbone." With a gentle but unmistakable sense of superiority, Luppi describes how he keeps the orphanage afloat by selling shots of the ancient liquor preserving the specimen, a substance his customers believe will cure virtually any ailment. Then, after Tielve has safely departed, Luppi takes a swig. In many respects, his contradictory actions typify his location. Situated in an orphanage miles from any neighbors, housed in what looks like an abandoned fort, Luppi and his students inhabit a no man's land caught between conflicting systems of belief. Somewhere beyond the horizon, fascists and leftists vie for control of their country's future. And, should the residents ever dismiss the war around them, an unexploded shell in their central courtyard serves as a constant reminder. The orphanage is a kind of earthly limbo, but Tielve suspects it's also a limbo for the spirit of one of its departed members, a boy who disappeared during the bombing, and who may now wander the halls as a spirit the boys have dubbed "the one who sighs." Directed and co-written (with Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz) by Guillermo del Toro, who's since directed Blade II, The Devil's Backbone augments its abundant creepiness with an equally powerful poignancy. Caught in a situation with no easy exit, the best Luppi can do is keep his kids safe and instruct them in the distinction between good and evil, during a time when such distinctions seem as much a part of the past as the superstitions he mocks. As with Cronos, his film debut, del Toro collaborates with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Together, they know how to cast even the most everyday objects in an eerie glow. Still, scary as it is, the film is distinguished most by its ability to tie its local tragedy to the course of history, and to capture a nation's loss in the melancholy of a single wandering ghost.