At the start of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, a bomb lands in the middle of an orphanage courtyard. Dropped from a Fascist plane during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, the shell doesn’t explode, but plants itself in the dirt, portentous and still. The camera cuts to other haunting images—a child’s bloody head, a body floating in water—as a somber voiceover offers tentative answers to the question, “What is a ghost?” The voiceover continues, tentative but enraptured: “It’s a tragedy condemned to repeat itself, a moment of pain perhaps… a moment suspended in time… an insect trapped in amber.”
None of these answers is exactly right. But all convey the sense of confinement and anxiety, of loss and limbo that a ghost might represent. As last summer’s The Others demonstrates so deftly, a ghost is a function of both individual and collective dread, insinuating simultaneously spectral distance and uncanny closeness. And here, all serve as introduction to a ghost story less concerned with visceral scares or physical limits, than with haunted psyches and unknowable consequences—the ongoing effects of the past on the present.
Born in Mexico and working out of Spain for most of his career (save for brief forays into the dark tangles of Hollywood industry filmmaking, for Mimic and the upcoming Blade 2, a shoot that the director says, went more smoothly than his first Stateside effort), del Toro has a well-known affection for oozing, awful, and also gorgeous images (see, for instance, the classically unsettling Cronos). Here he turns his attention again to the ways that old familial and/or historical connections persistently infect the present.
That The Devil’s Backbone‘s setting is the Santa Lucia school, which has become an orphanage during the final days of the War, speaks to this infection. No longer able to prepare pupils for their increasingly uncertain future, the school has become a repository of past injustices and resentments, festering and developing anew in the present. Indeed, the lives of the students at Santa Lucia are shaped by fears of the mysterious and the iniquitous, denoted by the unexploded bomb. Dealing with these fears as they can, the kids—sons of dead Republicans, both militia members and politicians—tease one another with ghost stories at night, and set upon their newest initiate, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), with the kind of petty fury favored by boys in a pack. Led by the bully Jaime (Iñigo Garcés), the boys taunt Carlos until he proves his mettle, daring to go into the off-limits kitchen after hours for water.
In the eerie kitchen, Carlos meets up with the most obvious reason everyone at the school is so spooked, a little boy ghost named Santi (Junio Valverde). It so happens that Santi’s is the bed that has been assigned to Carlos, back in the cavernous hall where all the boys sleep. When he sees the ghost—with gray skin flapping loose, blood dribbling from a head wound, and a strangely watery ookiness following him about like dust follows Charles Schulz’s Pigpen—Carlos is primed for standard movie terror. But at the same time, he is intrigued, eventually enough to learn what terrible story the ghost has to tell.
Where Santi becomes a relatively benign presence for Carlos and the other boys, the same cannot be said for the living adults, whose self-interests and schemes for vengeance lead to disaster. As a metaphor for the evils done by lingering hostilities and ritually revisited feuds, the adults’ inability to move beyond their own pasts is aptly signified in the old school buildings and empty stretch of desert beyond. There is no escape: they are trapped in a kind of amber, and the film’s insistent chiaroscuro shadows and color scheme—sulfurous reds, golds, and yellows, or alternately, icy blues and grays—emphasize their perilous existence in a way that is at once somber and unnervingly beautiful.
The adults, so limited, provide the boys with good reason to feel anxious. The romantic-minded, impotent Dr. Cásares (Federico Luppi) pines for the woman he believes is his one true love, the brittle, wooden-legged headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Late at night, he leans with his ear pressed against the wall his room shares with hers, listening as she beds the much younger school janitor (and former Santa Lucia student), Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega).
If Jacinto and Carmen’s nightly escapades aren’t exactly a secret, neither is the fact that he “endures” her in order to get his hands on a stash of gold bars he believes she has hidden away. Jacinto comes across as such a wholly selfish and mean-spirited individual that when his fiancée, the pretty, naive maid Conchita (Irene Visedo), reacts with a kind of superficial but gentle kindness to Carlos’s crush on her, you half hope that this intrepid little boy will be able to save her from her brutish betrothed. When Jacinto tells her that when he was a kid, he “dreamed of getting out of here,” you get the feeling that escape is not in his cards, that his fate lies precisely where he is. “You’re so complicated,” she sighs. And with this, you know that her fantasy, like Carlos’s or Jacinto’s fantasy, is precisely that, a fantasy.
As Carlos slowly uncovers a series of secrets—having to do with Santi, Jacinto, and even Dr. Cásares—each of these figures takes on a specific meaning and place in the ghostworld of Santa Lucia. That del Toro situates your understanding alongside the boy’s grants the film an innocence and wonder that many movies about ghosts don’t (or won’t) achieve, an openness to the possibilities of such spirits, despite and because of the horrors they represent. Even more haunting than the recurring image of Santi’s watery death and essence, is the history that hovers in the film’s background, Franco’s unspeakable cruelty, the silent, brooding threat embodied by the bomb that has not yet exploded. Abandoned in the desert, the school’s isolated, orphaned denizens struggle mightily against an inevitable end, a past that must infuse and so become their future.