“What is a ghost?” It’s the question at the heart of Guillermo del Toro’s near-perfect The Devil’s Backbone, the pin that holds together the interwoven threads of his layered story. Is it a literal ghost: a restless spirit that persists in stalking the halls at night? Or perhaps the looming specter of war, in a place full of orphans whose parents were claimed by the conflict... Or is a ghost simply the lingering regret for words unsaid, chances untaken, dreams unfulfilled?
The story opens at a remote orphanage in the final days of the Spanish Civil War. Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives with a suitcase and shoebox of childish treasures, confused and uncertain. And for all that the teachers—including the eloquent Dr. Casares (del Toro fave Federico Luppi) and the elegant Carmen (Marisa Paredes)—are kindly, Carlos has a hard time settling in. The resident bully Jaime immediately dislikes him, the orphanage echoes eerily with secrets, and there is an unsolved mystery surrounding a boy who abruptly disappeared the night a bomb fell in the courtyard.
When Carlos is given the boy’s bed, he soon suspects that the missing Santi never actually left the orphanage. Something began haunting the school in the wake of his disappearance, a being the other boys call “The One Who Sighs”, and it isn’t long before Carlos comes face to face with the ghost and hears a most frightening warning: “Many of you will die.”