Directed by Guillermo del Toro
“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.”
El espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) is a truly beautiful, poetic and frightening film. Partly a coming of age tale, partly a supernatural ghost story and partly a political allegory, where all parts are fused perfectly.
The story is set during the Spanish Civil War. Twelve year old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at the orphanage run by Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) who are alligned with the Republicans. A large amount of gold is hidden in the orphanage, meant as a help for the Republicans. Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the groundskeeper and Conchita (Irene Visedo), a teacher are helping Cesares and Carmen to run the orphanage, while Jacinto have his own plans for the gold. The orphanage is constanly under the threat of Franco’s troops, and the defused bomb sits in its courtyard. Carlos starts having the visions of the ghost, and hears the stories of Santi, a boy who went missing the day the bomb fell to the courtyard.
El espinazo del diablo is a perfectly directed film, one where form and content are completely in sync. It is set in the thin space between life and death and it explores both things from multiple angles: from the point of view of children, whose life just started but is already in big danger and from the point of view of the adults, especially Casares, who lives in a constant state of melancholy and pain and wants to protect the children from the everpresent danger.
All the details in the movie are connected with the theme of the trapped ghost, like the foetuses in the jar, floating in water like a ghosts in the limbo, like the main heroes of the movie. Carmen and Casares are helping Republicans but all they are really doing is waiting for the disaster, they are very much aware of the future. Jacinto is ex orphan, now greedy caretaker turning against Republicans, in the end causing the disaster. The metaphor of the ghost boy and the bomb in the yard partially represents exactly that – the waiting for the incoming disaster. Everybody is trapped in that limbo, and the situation is the most tragic for the children.
Carlos and his friends are caught between life and death at the early age, trying to establish the connection with the death (a ghost), to bond and fight the fear. In that way the movie is also a very well told coming of age tale. It’s a very gritty but also poetic and beautiful movie.