“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 are the question posed to you, the watcher, when you first start The Devil’s Backbone, questions you can see reflected, answered, and asked again through the movie.
I first learned of The Devil’s Backbone from listening to the very awesome Horror Etc. podcast (if you like horror films then I order you to start listening to them, as long as you don’t leave Your Book is Why Daddy Drinks). Written, produced, and direct by del Torro, The Devil’s Backbone is one of the first movies, arguably, that he really wanted to do and you can tell that there’s a lot of his love in the movie that isn’t present in his previous films (and when you consider that one of those films is the immenently forgetable Mimic, well, that’s not hard to understand why the love was missing). It is also one of his most critically acclaimed movies.
Set during the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone follows the story of Carlos, a boy who has recently, and unknowingly, become a war orphan when his father is killed in the fighting. Carlos is taken to an orphanage by two of his father’s friends, under the ruse that he’ll only be there temporarily. It is during his stay at the orphanage that he encounters a ghost called “the one who sighs”.
Along with the ghost thread there is story of Jacinto. A bitter man in his late twenties, Jacinto used to be an orphan at the same orphanage and now works there as a handyman. Living with his girlfriend Conchita, Jacinto has learned that Carmen, the headmistress of the orphanage, along with Dr. Casares, the orphanage’s male instructor and physician, are Leftist sympathizers who have been hiding several gold ingots for the Leftist cause. Desiring the gold, Jacinto has been working towards breaking into the vault where the gold is kept so that he can use it to get away from the orphanage. Clearly the villain, he is indifferent toward Conchita and has used his long-time sexual relationship with Carmen (who more or less uses him for the sex she can’t get from the older Dr. Casares, who is currently her love interest, and her late husband before the doctor starting when Jacinto was seventeen) to gain access to the keys that might unlock the vault.
The Devil’s Backbone is a story plagued with ghosts. Beyond the obvious example with The One Who Sighs, each of the characters is haunted in their own way. Carlos, by the death of his father and his sudden abandonment at the orphanage. Jacinto, with his history as an orphan, the sexual relationship that has only made his feeling alone worse, and his lust for gold and freedom. Dr. Casares, who loves Carmen but must listen to her get the sexual fulfillment from Jacinto that he wishes he could give her. Carmen, who loves the doctor but who cannot turn away Jacinto and who is also haunted by her obligations and sense of feeling trapped by the orphanage. The other orphans have their own ghosts, literally in the case of Jaime who is intimately tied to the story behind The One Who Sighs. Each character answers the questions posed by the narration by Dr. Casares I quoted above to weave together the stories of the supernatural and the mundane that create a very good, tight movie.
If you like ghost movies I cannot recommend The Devil’s Backbone enough.