Arriving when Guillermo del Toro was better known by Horror genre cognoscenti then by mainstream filmgoers (at least Stateside), this stunning work (certainly his best considered if not his flat-out best) remains frustratingly underseen. Something of a companion piece to the later, better known, PAN’S LABYRINTH/’06, it brings Gothic sensibilities to a story of war orphans as pawns to personal & political treachery during the Spanish Civil War, played with a cruelty Goya would have recognized along with a meta-physics angle (near tactile ghosts) that shouldn’t fit in, but does. At once epic & intimate, the film has the flavor of a folktale told in a style half Sergio Leone/half Taviani Bros. as a young teen is forcibly ‘parked’ at an isolated boys’ orphanage. Traditional hazing tropes from other boys follow, then bleed into even deadlier situations as Civil War closes in. While in the background, a cache of hidden gold, meant for the Republicans, is sought by a ruthless former orphan, now grown into wicked handsomeness and seducing his way toward his goal. Scary and sorrowful, del Toro’s hold on the material is complete, with a superb cast (the lead boy very fine, with eyes that have seen too much) and a trim budget imposing less-is-more visual discipline atypical of del Toro.* Unforgettable stuff, tough, heartbreaking, ummissable.
DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Like Tim Burton, del Toro’s latter films might be twice as good with half the budget. Including this film’s follow up, PAN’S LABYRINTH.