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.
These words begin “The Devil’s Backbone”. Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, this drama/horror film is set during the Spanish Civil War, and follows a boy called Carlos who is taken to an orphanage after his father dies in the fighting. Carlos is almost immediately introduced to a ghost of a young boy. A number of characters, adult and child, interact against a backdrop of the turmoil in Spain at this time, leading to a violent conclusion.
Del Toro gives us a spooky, sinister story where the ghost (introduced very early on) turns out to be the least of the children’s worries. The war is spoken of and is a mostly unseen but still threatening backdrop of the film. The adults are concerned about this – the people in the school are against the fascists, and are hiding a cache of gold bars for their side. They know that the fascists are winning and towards the end of the film decide that they need to try to leave, taking the children with them. The children, on the other hand, are far more concerned with staying away from Jacinto (a younger man working at the orphanage), fears about the bomb in the yard (we are told it was defused, but the children think it is still live and can be heard ticking), and of course the ghost (who they have dubbed ‘the one who sighs’).
The cast of children in the movie are all excellent. Leading them is Fernando Tielve as Carlos, a boy who is dumped at the orphanage by his teacher after his father has died in the fighting. It would appear that they haven’t even told Carlos his father is dead. Tielve is excellent in the role, giving a convincing portrayal of the confusion and fear of a displaced child during wartime. He and the other young actors are all excellent, showing a heartbreaking depiction of young boys trying to be all tough and independent in the face of death and abandonment. Carlos, being the character who interacts the most with the ghost, shows a great deal of courage and intelligence, facing up to a rather frightening apparition in his determination to get to the bottom of the mystery the ghost represents.
Eduardo Noriega is Jacinto, janitor at the school and antagonist of the story. He is a violent and selfish man who has no qualms about hurting or even killing children. Noriega is so good in this role, depicting a nasty, psychopathic individual in a very convincing way. His portrayal is not overstated, and is more effective as a result. He boasts to his partners in crime about his plans and the gold he hopes to steal, uses his young girlfriend and discards her when she is of no further use, sleeps with the older head of the orphanage, and sees the children merely as annoying impediments to what he wants.
Marisa Paredes and Federico Luppi play Carmen and Dr Casares, the couple running the orphanage. They are good, kind people, who do their best to look after the boys in their care, even though shortages of the war mean it is becoming increasingly harder to feed them. These actors are veterans of the cinema and so good to watch. Luppi particularly is marvellous in this role, giving a powerful portrayal of an elderly man who loves both Carmen and the children, and will gladly give his life for them.
Del Toro’s films are known for their innovative depictions of fantastical creatures, and the ghost of this film is no exception. We know that the body of the murdered child was dumped in a pool of water. So, when the ghost is seen, he is depicted with a cloud of red rising from his broken skull, like blood in water. He is surrounded by water droplets hanging in the air. The effects used for this ghost are excellent, and the result is a chilling depiction of the spirit.
Thematically, the story is about love, revenge, betrayal, cruelty, the tragedies of war. Times of war to some become an opportunity – Jacinto may have been the same in any time or place, but it is the anarchy of a war torn country that enables him to take actions without concern for any consequences. He and his friends actually talk about no one being interested in the school and no one coming to check on them. The ghost acts as a harbinger of doom (his statement that ‘many will die’ is born out) and as a vengeful spirit (he wants his murderer dealt with). Carmen and Casares have affection and love for each other in spite of their circumstances and their surroundings. Their love for the children is also very obvious, leading to another ghostly presence towards the end of the film that helps the boys. The surviving boys face up to their fears and work together to escape their predicament.
The ’devil’s backbone’ of the title is only mentioned in one scene. Dr Casares has many scientific samples in his office, including a couple of bottled fetuses. One appears to be deformed, and he describes it to Carlos as a ‘devil’s backbone’, a superstitious phrase for a physical deformity where the spine appears outside the body. He says it is considered to be a child who ‘should never have been born’. While there is no indication Jacinto has any such deformity, this clearly still refers to him as having a deformity of spirit, and therefore being one who should never have been born.
“The Devil’s Backbone” is an excellent example of a ghost story. The ghost child illustrates revenge, while the second ghost at the end is a clear example of love transcending death. The cast and direction all make this film a pleasure to watch. I recommend it highly.