Mexican-born actor Guillermo DelToro debuted as a director at 29 with
Cronos (1993), followed by Mimic (1997), based on Donald Wollheim's short story, two films about the supernatural.
Set in Spain during the Civil War of the 1930s,
El Espinazo del Diablo/ The Devil's Backbone (2001) is a ghost story,
a children story, a political fresco and a sordid melodrama.
Underlying the fairy tale of a living child who is trying to communicate with
a dead child are a story of sexual frustration and a story of political
In the first scene a child dies, blood pouring out of his skull.
Carlos, another child, doesn't know it, but his father has been killed in the Spanish civil war. His tutor brings him to the house of a rich middle-aged lady with
a wooden leg, Carmen, the widow of a leader of the rebels, who, together with
an elderly Argentine-born doctor,
is now taking care of many children like him, orphans of dead rebels
Carlos' tutor begs her to take Carlos. Carmen begs him to take her gold so
the fascists will not find it if they win the war.
Carlos thinks he is just visiting the odd compound, but instead the tutor leaves
him there. While he was waiting in the courtyard, admiring an inexploded bomb
that is still stuck in the ground, he saw a strange figure that
disappeared after a few seconds. At night he thinks he hears someone.
Carlos is afraid but determined to meet the ghost, and follows him into
the basement wearing only his pajama.
The children know about the ghost, and so do Carmen and the doctor.
Jacinto also lives in the house. He is a young man, a former pupil, who now
works as a caretaker in return for shelter and food. He is engaged to the
beautiful Conchita, the housekeeper, and they dream of starting a life in
But Jacinto is actually a sadistic man who one day scars Carlos with a knife
to punish him.
The doctor, instead, is a nice man who knows how to deal with the children.
When Carlos tells him about the ghost, the doctor shows him the secret of the
orphanage: a drink that they make out of some secret potion and that gets its
taste from the bodies of unborn children. The doctor invites him to drink
in order to heal his wound, and Carlos immediately retracts his ghost story
rather than drink. The doctor smiles, but then he drinks his own disgusting
potion: popular superstition has it that it cures male impotence.
Jacinto is also a cheater: he is Carmen's secret lover (the secret lover of
his former teacher, of the woman who saved him and raised him).
The doctor hears
them make love from the other side of the wall.
And Jaime, the most arrogant of the children, is secretely in love with
the pretty Conchita, who obviously treats him only like a child.
The children finally tell Carlos that he has been assigned the bed of a child,
Santi, who disappeared the night that the bomb dropped from the sky. Nobody
knows what happened to Santi.
Carlos looks again for Santi and finds him, but Santi is evil and locks him
in a closet.
One day the doctor learns that their friend has been taken prisoner. Knowing
that he will talk under torture, the doctor persuades Carmen to take as many
children as possible and leave before the fascists come to search the house.
He thinks that Carmen still has the gold.
So does Jacinto, who reveals the real reason for his sexual favors to Carmen:
he wants the gold. He grabs the key of the safe, but the doctor shows up in
time with a gun and kicks him out of the orphanage.
While the children get ready to leave, Jacinto returns, damages the only truck
and is pouting gasoline to set fire to the building while the children
are still inside.
Conchita sees him and grabs a gun, but can't find the strength to shoot.
Carmen and many children are killed in the explosion.
The survivors have to camp among the ruins. The doctor, wounded, is determined
to kill Jacinto.
Jaime finally tells Carlos how Santi died: he was killed by Jacinto who threw
him against a wall, breaking his skull (the first scene of the film).
Then Jacinto threw the body into the pool. Jaime watched unseen, powerless
to save his friend. Minutes later bombers appeared in the sky and a bomb fell,
narrowly missing Jaime. Now Jacinto too is determined to kill Jacinto.
In the meantime, Conchita has set out on foot to look for help. Instead
she runs into Jacinto, who does not hesitate to kill her. Jacinto is coming
with friends to loot the place. The old man is waiting for him at the
window, armed with a gun, but getting weaker. He promises to protect the
children to the end, but instead he dies.
In the meantime Jacinto meets Santi who asks: "bring him to me".
Jacinto is already there, and forces the children to help him search for
the safe. When they find it, they find it empty. BUt Jacinto is obsessed with
the gold and wants to continue searching. And he succeeds: Carmen had hidden
lots of gold inside her wooden leg.
The children had been locked in a room but a mysterious hand opens the door
The children make sure that Jacinto chases them into the room where Santi
was killed. Then they throw him in the pool for Santi to finish the job.
What really kills him is the gold that he has in his pockets: the weight
drags him to the bottom and makes him drown, his body struggling underwater
next to the skeleton of Santi.
The surviving children leave the building and start walking along the road.
Once they have left, the doctor appears at the gate:
he is the new ghost of the place. The last words of the film are his.
El Laberinto del Fauno/ The Labyrinth of the Faun/ Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
is two films in two: a harrowing war movie and a fairy tale.
The two are gently woven into each other and somehow their intercourse
gives birth to the old-fashioned melodrama of an orphan mistreated by
her stepfather. It is a mesmerizing game of symbiosis and metamorphosis.
There seem to be references to biblical events (e.g.
in the Book of Genesis mandrake root helps Rachel conceive Jacob) but, if so,
they don't follow the original.
In 1944, while Spain is run by a fascist dictator,
a girl is reading a fairy tale. The fairy tale is about a princess who left
the underworld to visit the human world and got her memory erased by the sun.
Having become mortal, she died, but her father the king still believes that
she will eventually return home. The king is building
labyrinths to welcome her back.
The reader is Ofelia, who is traveling in a car through the forest with her pregnant mother Carmen
towards the military camp where her stepfather, a captain, is stationed.
It is an old mill.
When the car stops to let her car-sick mother vomit, Ofelia takes a short walk
and finds a stone that looks like the carving of an eye. Then she finds a statue
that is missing the eye. She pushes the eyes into the stone face and a
praying mantis comes out of the mouth. When Ofelia gets into the car and the car restarts, the praying mantis flies behind it.
The stepfather is in charge of capturing the remaining communist rebels fighting
the fascist dictator.
The praying mantis shows up again. Ofelia follows it and discovers
an ancient stone labyrinth.
The captain's trusted maid Mercedes takes care of Ofelia, who makes a point
of telling her that her father was a tailor, while
the military doctor visits Carmen. The doctor does not hesitate to tell the
ruthless captain that it was not a good idea to have the pregnant woman go
on such a long tiring trip. The captain coldly replies that a son has to be
born where his father is, and the doctor is shocked that the captain is so
certain that the baby will be a boy.
When the doctor leaves, Mercedes begs him for help, implying that she is
protecting someone who was shot by the soldiers, obviously a rebel.
Meanwhile the captain's soldiers have arrested a peasant and his son,
suspecting them of cooperating with the communists. The son claims that
his father went hunting for rabbits. The captain kills him brutally by
crushing his head with a metal baton and then shoots the father in the heart.
But the old man's purse contains indeed dead rabbits.
The captain coldly reproaches the soldiers for not having carefully searched
the two peasants and takes the rabbits home for Mercedes to cook them.
Meanwhile, Ofelia wakes up and finds the praying mantis chirping next to her
and turning into a tiny fairy.
The flying fairy leads Ofelia through the labyrinth to an ugly but friendly faun.
The faun welcomes her back, believing that she is the lost princess, and gives
her a book of blank pages that is supposed to contain three tasks for her
to perform in order to regain immortality.
The following day the captain receives a huge cargo of food and medicines
that clearly draws the attention of Mercedes. Just then the soldiers spot a
fire in the forest and immediately ride in that direction. The captain finds
a syringe of antiobiotics next to the abandoned campfire. The rebels are
actually watching them but the soldiers don't see them.
Meanwhile, Ofelia wanders through the woods reading the faun's book and
is assigned the first task. She crawls into a cave until she meets a horrible
giant toad. The task is to retrieve the key that the toad guards. She succeeds
but she leaves the cave covered in mud and slime.
That evening the captain is throwing a party. He is boasting about having
cornered the remaining communists, and Mercedes walks out silently to
warn the rebels with light signals. Just then Ofelia is walking out of the
woods, shivering, dirty, her beautiful new dress destroyed.
Her mother is mad at her and sends her to be without supper.
But the praying mantis appears again. Ofelia follows her again into
the underworld to meet the faun. She delivers the key to the faun, who tells
her to keep it and gives a chalk.
The soldiers distribute food and medicines to the population but the captain
deliberately limits the amount so that they cannot give any to the rebels.
Every time Ofelia looks at the book of blank pages, the pages start displaying
something. This time the book displays blood. Ofelia runs to her other's room
and finds her in pain and covered in blood.
Ofelia knows that Mercedes is helping the rebels but is willing to keep the
Mercedes leads the doctor to her lover, Pedro. The doctor is willing to risk
his life. Pedro leads them to the camp where the rebels hide. The doctor has
to amputate the rotting leg of the leader, an older intellectual.
The doctor tells Pedro that he is a fool for fighting the vastly superior
forces of the fascists, but Pedro is determined to continue his fight.
Mercedes hands him the key to the warehouse where all the food and medicines
The faun appears to Ofelia while she is sleeping and gives her a magic root
for her mother. The faun tells Ofelia that her next task is life-threatening.
She follows the instructions, opens a secret passage, and walks into
a long tunnel. She ends up in a room where a mannequin is sitting in front
of a table laden with delicious food, but the decoration of the room hints
at meals in which the children are the main course. Ofelia doesn't resist the
temptation to try the food. The mannequin rises and
eats the fairies who are trying to protect Ofelia. Ofelia, terrified, runs
back into the tunnel but the monster is right behind her. She barely escapes
and gives her mom the magic medicine. The doctor is pleased to see improvement
in the mother. Ofelia overhears the captain order the doctor that, if things
get worse, he has to save the child before the mother.
The rebels attack a convoy in the woods but don't steal anything. The captain
rushes there with the soldiers and is puzzled that the rebels didn't steal
anything... until he hears the explosions: the rebels have attacked his camp
to steal all the food and medicines from the warehouse, and the attack on
the convoy was just a diversion to send him away with most of the soldiers.
The captain leads the posse that chases the rebels. When they find them,
they massacre them. At the end of the battle
the soldiers kill all the rebels who are still breathing but too wounded to speak.
They save only one, one who is only wounded in the leg, and can still talk.
They take him back to the mill and the captain tortures him all night long.
At night, the faun appears to Ofelia. The surving fairy tells the faun that
Ofelia woke up the monster by eating his food, and the faun curses her to
remain human forever.
In the morning the captain calls the doctor to assist the prisoner who no longer responds to the torture.
The prisoner begs the doctor to kill him, and the doctor does it.
The captain also realizes that the doctor has been providing
medicines to the rebels.
The doctor is doomed. The captain shoots him in the back after a brief confrontation.
At the same time the captain has found the magic root and showed it to Carmen.
Carmen scolds Ofelia: magic does not exist. Carmen throws the root in the
fire, and the root starts screaming. Seconds later Carmen starts screaming too:
the birthpangs started. Carmen dies giving birth to a son. The captain is
indifferent to Carmen's death but rushes to hug his son.
Ofelia now only has Mercedes. But the prisoner has confessed enough that
the captain has started suspecting Mercedes of being an informer.
Mercedes decides to escape and Ofelia insists to leave with her,
but the captain is ready to catch them. He locks up Ofelia and prepares
to torture Mercedes. Mercedes has hidden a knife in her apron and attacks
the captain, stabbing him repeatedly. Mercedes run away. The captain is alive
and orders the soldiers to chase her. When the soldiers reach her, and surround
her, she is ready to kill herself rather than surrender but the rebels arrive
just in time to annihilate the soldiers. She can finally hug Pedro again.
At night, the faun orders Ofelia to bring the captain's son into the labyrinth.
Ofelia grabs the baby while the rebels are storming the mill, but the captain
(her step-father) sees her.
Mercedes is in fact searching for her.
The captain abandons his men and chases Ofelia into the labyrinth.
Ofelia brings the baby to the faun but then refuses to hand him over when the
faun reveals that he needs a few drops of his blood for the sacrifice that
will open the gate of the underworld.
The captain sees Ofelia talking alone (cannot see the faun), grabs the baby
from her and coldly shoots her. He walks out of the labyrinth only to find
that the rebels have conquered the mill and are waiting for him.
He hands the baby over to Mercedes and asks her to tell the baby the exact
time when he died (just like his own father did when he died in the war),
but Mercedes tells him the opposite: the baby will never even know his name.
Pedro shoots him in the head. Ofelia is dying. She wakes up in a royal room.
Her mother and her (real) father are sitting on high thrones and welcoming
her back to their kingdom: she has passed the last test by preferring to spill
her own blood rather than the blood of an innocent.
Ofelia smiles as she dies.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx) |
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