The Devil's Backbone

El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001, Spanish/Mexico

The always meticulous del Toro went so far as to write biographies of each character; he would hand them out to their respective actors and ask them to look for things in common. A look at the characters themselves makes this exercise sound rather unnerving…

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Carlos (Fernando Tielve) in the foreground, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés, the tallest) in the background.

Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at Santa Lucía not knowing he is a freshly-minted orphan. The film is essentially his initiation into the secrets of the orphanage: the good-cop-bad-cop dynamic that Casares and Carmen share with the orphans; his friendship with the other children, even Jaime; his skirmishes with Jacinto; and, of course, his discovery of Santi. Carlos is named for Spanish comic writer Carlos Gimenez, who served as a storyboard artist on the film and whose series Paracuellos, set in a Francoist orphanage during the early 1950s, was one of the film’s many inspirations.

 

Gimenez also lent his personality to another important character: Jaime (Íñigo Garcés); both characters are huge fans of comics, but at the beginning of the film one would think their similarities end there. Jaime is a Jacinto-in-the-making, and del Toro smart played this up with a naming convention: though all the good guys' names begin with a "C", he decided to have Jaime and Jacinto share an initial because “Jaime is a bully that chooses to change – unlike his grown up counterpart."

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Santi (Junio Valverde)

Much like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Santi (Junio Valverde) casts a shadow over the proceedings despite not being physically present – at least not in a form most people would recognize. He is known to the orphans as "The One Who Sighs", and he seems to stick around as a ghost only for vengeance on Jacinto. The color-conscious del Toro may also have made Santi porcelain-white to emphasise his innocence: his full name, “Santito”, means “little saint”.

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Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes)

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Conchita (Irene Visedo) and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega)

Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) is the “dream gone sour” personified. Named for Hyacinth, a youth loved by the Greek god Apollo, he is a former (badly treated) orphan who has stayed on in the capacity of groundskeeper. This is part of his plan to steal the gold that Carmen has hidden and escape with it to begin a new life. The gold and the War have become a mania with him: despite finding Carmen repulsive, he sleeps with her to find the gold. By the end of the film, he has spared almost no one to get it, not even the children who remind him of a past he’d rather forget.

 

Conchita (Irene Visedo) is the cook and sometime teacher at the orphanage. She is the youngest woman there, and is certainly an object of affection for Jaime, the eldest orphan. This doesn’t go down well with Jacinto, to whom she is engaged. When she stands up to him after he destroys the orphanage, she is killed for being an inconvenience.

Carmen (Marisa Paredes) lost both her poet husband and a leg to the War, and has been running the Santa Lucía orphanage for at least twenty years. Her assistant is Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), the guardian spirit of the orphanage who has stayed on entirely because of his unrequited love for Carmen. Their wildly different approaches to the War can be seen in their behaviour with the orphans: the former tries to make ends meet, while the latter tries to keep the orphans happy.