The Devil's Backbone

El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001, Spanish/Mexico

“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.”

So begins – and ends – The Devil’s Backbone; by the end we know that these words are spoken by the ghost of Dr. Casares, who watches the orphans mill out into the countryside and sighs, “A ghost is me.”

Considering that almost everyone is dead by the end of the film, why do we only see Casares return as a ghost? Ghosts are commonly assumed to linger because they have unfinished business, but del Toro expands this definition to include “[o]ur inadequate moments, the ones we regret... A ghost is the moment that you didn’t have the courage to confront the school bully, when you couldn’t tell the girl that you were in love with her. A ghost is a feeling that pursues you, a pending issue, a past that you’ve lost.”

The film is thus “rife with characters who are not quite whole–some physically, but all spiritually and emotionally–who are looking to fill that void by any means necessary, be it violence, sex, and money, or through love, friendship, and justice.” The orphans have obviously lost the shelter of a home; Casares seeks solace in poetry, Carmen in Jacinto, and Jacinto in gold.

The film opens with a point-of-view shot of a bomb falling into the orphanage courtyard; we never see it explode. This is the first of the film’s inanimate ghosts, a stand-in for Santi that haunts everyone in its vicinity. One orphan, who shows Carlos around, warns him that "They say it's switched off but I don't believe it. Put your head against it. You can hear it ticking." As del Toro notes in the book on the making of the film, the bomb is in fact more unnerving than Santi's ghost:

“If you have a bomb in your backyard, unexploded… basically it becomes the north of your entire geography... Whether you sleep close to or far from the bomb, or you cross the bomb to go to the well, it’s always there at the center…But even if you live with a bomb, it’s still a bomb. That’s the essence of a civil war. You live with a conflict and it can become matter-of-fact, everyday, but you’re still living with this bomb at home.”

The film proceeds to give us a laundry list of ghosts: ”Carmen’s wooden leg, the safe full of gold Jacinto is so desperate to unlock, bleeding crucifixes and Casares’ jars of preserved malformed fetuses.” Another is the radio, a disembodied voice that serves as the orphanage’s link to the outside world. The orphanage itself is trapped in the middle of nowhere. And what of the living ghosts? Aren’t the orphans – Carlos, Jaime, even Jacinto – and, let's face it, Carmen and Casares trapped there too?

 

In interviews, del Toro takes this idea as far as it can go: “When you construct a film around symbols, you reach a point where bigger symbols start to pop up, and you no longer have control over them… the civil war, which was never completely healed in Spain, is a ghost.” It is a tribute to his filmmaking that, as the ever-redoubtable Roger Ebert notes, “Del Toro's symbols work first as themselves, then as what they may stand for, so it does not matter if the audience has never heard of Franco, as long as it has heard of ghosts.”

© 2021 by Shwetant Kumar.