Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Ghosts are more interesting when they have their reasons. They should have unfinished affairs of the heart or soul. Too many movies use them simply for shock value, as if they exist to take cues from the screenplay. "The Devil's Backbone," a mournful and beautiful new ghost story by Guillermo del Toro, understands that most ghosts are sad, and are attempting not to frighten us but to urgently communicate something that must be known so that they can rest.
The film takes place in Spain in the final days of the Civil War. Franco's fascists have the upper hand, and in a remote orphanage the children of left-wing families await the end. An enormous crucifix has been put on display to disguise the institution as a Catholic school, and the staff is uneasily prepared to flee. In the courtyard, a huge unexploded bomb rests, nose-down, like a sculpture. "They say it's switched off," says one of the kids, "but I don't believe it. Put your head against it. You can hear it ticking." A young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) has been brought to the school in a car riding across one of those spaghetti Western landscapes. He is assigned Bed No. 12--"Santi's bed," the children whisper. Santi is a boy who died, and whose ghost is sometimes seen, sometimes heard sighing. Carlos learns the ways of the school, its rules, the boys who will be his friends and his enemies.
The most ominous presence is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a former student who is now the janitor. The orphanage is run by Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), elderly and self-absorbed, and by Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who has a wooden leg. There is also Conchita (Irene Visedo), the sexy maid; Jacinto sleeps with her but also goes through the motions of courting Carmen, because he suspects she has gold hidden somewhere on the grounds, and he wants it.
This information unfolds gradually, as Carlos discovers it. He also begins to see the ghost, a sad, gray indistinct figure who seems associated with a deep water tank in the basement. There's a creepy sequence in which the other boys dare Carlos to make a forbidden nighttime expedition to the kitchen, to bring back water; he is venturing into the world of the orphanage's dreaded secrets.