(2001) Directed by Guillermo del Toro; Written by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz; Starring: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Fernando Tielve and Federico Luppi; Available on DVD
Rating: **** ½
“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.” – Dr. Casares
An effective ghost story is more about what is unseen and unheard, rather than the limited information that our senses can gather. With The Devil’s Backbone, director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro spins a paradoxically beautiful, horrible and affecting tale. Del Toro understands that feeling on a visceral level is just as important as being shown unsettling imagery. The spiritual and tangible worlds establish an uneasy co-existence, bridging a tenuous link between the living and the dead. It’s the living, however, that we must be wary of.
The film is set in the late 1930s, amidst the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Del Toro would visit a similar milieu, and continue his exploration of themes about the deleterious effects of fascism, for his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (set several years after the conclusion of the civil war). The title The Devil’s Backbone (aka: El Espinazo del Diablo) refers to a specimen of Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), a fetus in a jar with spina bifida (referred to, in more superstitious, less enlightened times, as “the devil’s backbone.”). Del Toro commented that this also served as a metaphor for the residents of the film’s secluded orphanage. They are “children of no one,” shunned by the rest of society, and doomed to life on the fringe. A bomb, still ticking, in the orphanage courtyard, serves as a grim reminder of the knife’s edge between life and death that the children face.
We are introduced to the central character Carlos (Fernando Tielve), as he’s abandoned by his tutor, and left at the orphanage. His relationship* with an older boy, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) is initially contentious, but an uneasy friendship is cultivated over time. Although the orphanage’s headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) describes him as “meek,” he quickly proves to be brave, generous and loyal. He stands as a polar opposite to the film’s antagonist, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who possesses none of these traits.
* Guillermo del Toro infused the film with autobiographical elements from his childhood, and his experiences attending a boarding school in Mexico, based on the sometimes cutthroat behavior between his classmates.
Described as a “prince without a kingdom,” the hateful caretaker Jacinto (himself a product of the orphanage), lashes out at everyone around him. Robbed of what he perceives his birthright, he takes what he can and discards the rest. He’s primarily motivated by the prospect of getting his hands on the gold that was hidden in the orphanage to help finance the war effort. Jacinto responds to everything with fear and hate. He fears what he does not understand, such as connecting with another human being, and his natural reaction is to respond with violence. In many respects, he’s the most pathetic character in the film because of his limited range of interacting and reacting with the world. He’s animalistic and primal, motivated by self-preservation and incapable of empathizing with others. His relationships are endemic of his disregard for everyone else. He maintains an empty sexual relationship with the one-legged Carmen (in an effort to get closer to the gold), while keeping a callous attitude toward his girlfriend, the selfless and gentle Conchita (Irene Visedo). Although his behavior is reprehensible, Jacinto never comes across as two-dimensional, but a lost soul, as worthy of our pity as our scorn. His years in the orphanage produced a bitter young adult with an impenetrable shell.
The other key player in The Devil’s Backbone is Dr. Casares, who serves as a parental figure for Carlos. He stays at Carmen’s side, running the orphanage, while suppressing his unrequited love for her. Unable to express his love for her physically, he endures her transgressions with Jacinto and bides his time. He is the island of calm and reason in a sea of war and chaos. Casares is a man of science, with no time for flights of fancy (or so it seems) or considering the veracity of rumors of a ghost roaming the halls of the orphanage.
So what’s a ghost story without a ghost? The ghost takes on a decidedly supporting role, since the interaction of the living characters is as integral to the story. We’re aware of Santi’s (Junio Valverde) presence from the very beginning, as he watches over the orphanage. He’s not there to frighten, but to provide a warning to Carlos and the other children. Spawned out of violence, he’s doomed to replay his tragic circumstances for all time.
In the film’s engrossing, informative DVD commentary del Toro remarked that, “…horror is exclusively about context.” Our minds fill in the blanks, occupying the vacuum left by what we cannot comprehend. The Devil’s Backbone generates an enduring feeling of dread and uneasiness that’s not quickly ameliorated. In a lesser horror film, a quick scare panders to an immediate reaction, but vanishes quickly in the ether. The scares in del Toro’s film are far more enduring. Witnessing the cruelties that humans inflict on one another is one of the greatest horrors of all.
Guillermo del Toro has crafted a classic story of sadness, despair, love, devotion and sacrifice, where each character is uniquely damaged in his or her own way. The Devil’s Backbone is also one of the finest ghost films, in good company with such supernatural tales as The Others and The Haunting.