“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and 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” – Casares
Set during the final years of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo) is the third feature film from Guillermo del Toro, following both his debut feature Cronos and his nineties horror picture Mimic. The narrative of the film focuses upon an orphanage in rural Spain and its latest arrival, Carlos (Fernando Tielve). Through his actions we experience the story, learning gradually the significance of characters, as well as the troubled history of the orphanage itself.
The boy’s initial impressions of the orphanage are grim. In the centre of the courtyard there lies an unexploded bomb nose down in the dust. Amongst the children there is talk that a child is missing. Others say that he now haunts the orphanage. Carlos begins to hear and see things.
Throughout the course of the movie del Toro exhibits a spectacular ability in crafting a story that is both unsettling and sympathetic. By presenting a fiction based upon a small child, especially one without a parental figure to protect him, he plunges the audience into a world that is both uncertain and unsafe. Early on, in fact, we come to realize that it is not only the supernatural that is a threat to the boy, but also the older inhabitants of the orphanage, who display a bullying attitude towards the younger children.
In terms of the performances the film again excels. The presence of the much older characters, such as Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), Carmen (Marisa Paredes), and Dr Casares (Federico Luppi) is measured perfectly and each character is given distinctive attributes to set them apart; Jacinto is boisterous and a bully, Carmen is curt yet caring, and Casares is kind and respectable. The children within the film, many of them first time actors, also impress when onscreen; they help throughout to reinforce the sense of dread and despondency that has inhabited the orphanage, to their credit.
Another point of interest is del Toro’s use of symbolism within the film, which is impeccable for the duration of the film. Within The Devil’s Backbone objects and situations, such as The Spanish Civil War, may seem to be merely embellishment to the story, yet they draw interesting parallels within the plot. An example of this is displayed within the characterisation of Jacinto, who bullies the children in a manner similar to how the socialists had come to be oppressed by Franco’s forces during the conflict. In fact, the film has been construed by many as an allegory for the strife of the Spanish people in general during this tumultuous period, the ghosts and monsters being representations, as is also suggested by Casares, for “an instant of pain…[or]…an emotion suspended in time.”
However you may choose to view the film, it is an interesting and enjoyable piece of European cinema. Not only does it manage to provide the usual scares expected of the horror genre, it also engages with the audience on a deeper level, offering a poignant tale of resistance and empowerment. Although, it may in many ways be overlooked in favour of its more successful sister film, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone is well worth a look.