“What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion, suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
— Narrator, The Devil’s Backbone
“This is The Devil’s Backbone the way the devil intended it to be seen,” says director Guillermo del Toro in his introduction to the Criterion Collection release of his weighty, gothic horror masterpiece. The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinozo del Diablo) is set in a leftist orphanage in a rural area during the final year of the Spanish Civil War. Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is brought to the orphanage by his tutor, a republic leftist fighter who can’t care him after the death of the boy’s father in battle.
Doctor Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) run the home for orphans, where they are also concealing a large stash of the leftist cause’s gold. Because of its strong connections to the resistance movement, the orphanage becomes a target for Franco’s troops. When Carlos arrives in the outer courtyard, he immediately notices a large, undischarged bomb sunken into the ground. While a teacher assures Carlos that the bomb has been defused and won’t explode, it’s power as a signifier remains.
The volatility of the orphanage, like the volatility of the bomb that lies at its center, is initially hidden from view. It seems like a desperate, sad place, but how else might an orphanage caught in the midst of a civil war seem? No, the volatility that is lurking here is much deeper than the politics of men. From the film’s very opening scenes, where we see young Jaime (Inigo Garces) kneeling over the body of a dying boy, we know that there is evil within this place that cannot be easily known or expunged.
For Carlos, adjusting to life at the orphanage is tough. No one has told him that his parents are dead, but it quickly becomes apparent to him that he might not be in the orphanage if they weren’t. A relatively well-educated child who arrived at the orphanage with a tutor, he also becomes a target for the other boys, especially Jaime.
When Carlos knocks over one of two jugs of water in the boys’ room in the middle of the night, Jaime insists that he sneak down to the kitchen and refill the jug.Scared but not dumb, Carlos challenges Jaime to go with him.
It’s on this first trip to the kitchen that we hear about the one who sighs, an unknown phantasm that haunts the orphanage at night. Though none of the boys have said as much, Carlos wonders if the mystery of the one who sighs is somehow connected to the disappearance of one of the orphans, Santi (Junio Valverde).
While Carlos begins to investigate the mysterious ghost, the adults around him navigate through a maze of political and relational conflicts. Carmen, whose wooden leg is another of del Toro’s metaphorical devices, struggles to match her leftist idealism against a newer, more totalitarian mindset represented by the orphanage’s groundskeeper, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). The potency of their growing ideological conflict is matched only by the angst of their secret and rather incestuous relationship. Lovely young teacher Conchita (Irene Visedo) emerges as one of the film’s chief moral victors, but also as one of its most tragic characters.
What makes The Devil’s Backbone extraordinary is that it doesn’t rely on the supernatural scare tactics of most horror movies. Instead, del Toro opts for magical realism, where the everyday world is altered by some thing or event that seems explicitly imaginary but has become real. Carlos is guided on his quest to discover some essential kernel of truth about the orphanage by a ghost his own age; a child who has obviously been subjected to some brutality. In the end, the horror is not that something otherworldly has violated the innocence of a child, but that it is precisely someone non-magical, someone completely human who is revealed as a beast worse than any monster a special effects artist could dream up.
The influence of Spanish gothic romance is clear in many of del Toro’s narrative and creative decisions. By reinventing gothic tropes or employing them in unfamiliar locations, the director is able to make clear ties to the sort of fairytale nostalgia that works as the ideological prop behind magical realism. In an interview on the bonus features disc included with the collection, del Toro reveals that what makes the fairytale elements in the film powerful is their situation against moments of great darkness.
The Devil’s Backbone ends with the same voiceover with which it began. As the narrator asks us, “What is a ghost?”, we weigh the description with which he presents us. The words, already powerful at the beginning of the film, have earned a new melancholy. No matter how many times you’ve seen what del Toro calls his “first film”, you can’t help but feel the shiver run up your own backbone as the narrator softly intones that a ghost is “an emotion, suspended in time”.
Behind The Devil’s Backbone
The story of a child taken to a new, dangerous place during the Spanish Civil War is repeated in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which del Toro says is the sister film to The Devil’s Backbone. In fact, the director insists that the viewer watch them together in order to best understand the films and their parallel, “rhyming” structure. We tried this viewing experiment and can assure you that it pays to listen to del Toro. Surprising nuances and powerful moments of melancholy float out of each film, striking the viewer with that indescribable sentiment so often inspired by magical realism.
All manner of insight into The Devil’s Backbone and its sister film are offered on the bonus features disc packaged with the Criterion Collection DVD. Among the selections are three interviews with del Toro, a documentary on the making of the film, several featurettes that highlight the film’s artistic direction, a director’s notebook and a short feature on the Spanish Civil War. A full audio commentary by del Toro is offered on the main disc. Viewers who are coming to the film for the first time should avoid listening to the commentary right away, as it does include spoilers.