The Devil's Backbone

El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001, Spanish/Mexico

“Del Toro’s position as an outsider allows him to stand back from the trauma of the civil war and examine it critically, even when those within the nation would prefer to forget that it happened. It is his decision to examine it through the lens of fantasy, however, that provides more insight into why it is important to engage in the act of remembrance, even when an entire nation would rather retreat into the realm of willful forgetting.”

The critic J. Hoberman calls The Devil’s Backbone “an experiment in antifascist super­­naturalism,” recalling how del Toro thinks of all cinema, especially horror and fantasy, as political. The orphanage comes into view boasting a giant crucifix, hung up to disguise the place as a Catholic establishment. Carlos bonds with the other orphans and with Casares over a comic of The Count of Monte Cristo. Santi becomes a mascot for the orphans, spurring them to overpower Jacinto and escape.

 

In addition to being players in an updated Oedipal triangle, Casares, Carmen and Jacinto also represent the past, present and (unwelcome) future of Spain. Casares escapes into the past while listening to the tangos of Argentine national hero Carlos Gardel; Jacinto prefers Nazi sympathiser Imperio Argentina (he also resorts to violence to repair the radio). Carmen is torn between seeing the orphans to safety and retrieving the gold, leading the humanist Casares to drop his civility and scream “Fuck the cause!”

 

In an early scene, Carmen shows the children a picture of a hunters killing a mammoth with spears as an example of cooperation. This is repurposed at the end of the film, when the orphans outnumber Jacinto and attack him with spears before throwing him into the pool to join Santi’s corpse. Jacinto and Santi thus become two divergent paths open to Spain: the former favours ideology over people, the latter is the people.

 

As a contrast to all the political turmoil is del Toro’s use of children as “neutral parties”: “They’ve yet to have their imaginations squandered which allows them to see these fantastical worlds exactly as they are, but they’ve also yet to see humans as anything but, allowing the reveal of the depravity human beings can possess to be from a pure and objective perspective.” That most of them are sacrificed for gold only adds to the poignancy of the situation.

 

In the audio commentary of the film’s DVD, del Toro goes on to claim that “the best horror tales are those where the teller of the tale is in love with the monster,” and, knowing del Toro, monsters and villains are never quite one and the same. Santi merely looks scary; Jacinto’s evil is bred by a lifetime of harsh treatment. The villain in a typical del Toro film is not an entity but an ideology that corrupts an entity, be it superstition, fascism or authoritarianism. As the liner notes of the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray has it, “the scariest monsters are often the human ones” – or, to quote the film’s tagline, “The living are always more dangerous than the dead.”

© 2021 by Shwetant Kumar.