Spain, the late 1930s. The Civil War is petering out and Franco’s Fascists are gaining ground. The young Carlos is taken by his guardian/tutor to a building complex a day’s walk from anywhere. Its an orphanage-cum-school and as the tutor and his compadre are going behind enemy lines, they can’t afford to take the boy with them. They’re sorry for dumping Carlos on the orphanage but at least here is a load of gold “for the cause”.
Like Carlos’s tutor, the people running the orphanage – Dr Casares and the one-legged headmistress Carmen – are Republicans. In the middle of the courtyard there is an unexploded bomb which has been undetonated, though the kids in the orphanage aren’t so sure. Its quite possible that the Fascists will be back, so crosses and statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary are being hurriedly erected.
In truth, Fascists are already in the building. The janitor, Jacinto, grew up in the orphanage but has developed into a nasty piece of work. He Is engaged to one of the teachers, Conchita, but he is also sleeping with Carmen, as he has one eye on her gold. He is violent towards the kids, and thrashes them if he finds them wandering about after hours.
Carlos is allocated bed number 12. This bed used to belong to Santi, who mysteriously disappeared on the day that the bomb fell. Carlos starts seeing shadows and wet footsteps that he believes have been left by Santi’s ghost. Together with Jaime, a bully with whom Carlos has made a reluctant peace, and various hangers on, he starts to investigate.
What follows is what might be called a materialist ghost story. Dr Casares is a man of science – you can tell that by the jars full of foetuses pickled in rum that lie on his desk. One of these foetuses has a “devil’s backbone” – a ruptured spine which was seen to confer a state of damnation. The film’s sense of the supernatural exists in this cleft between rumour ans superstition.
Now of course ghosts do not exist in the form of white sheets with black eyeholes, but what if ghosts were memories of lingering guilt? There was something strange about Santi’s disappearance, and some people know more than they are letting on. We are not expected to believe that Carlos is being haunted by a spook, but the memories of Santi are somehow addressing him.
All I can say is that although on the written page this reads like all sorts of unbelievable hokum, it somehow works on screen. Director Guillermo del Toro expertly creates a sense of unease that makes us unconditionally believe everything that is happening in front of us, even though we intellectually know that it doesn’t make sense.
One of del Toro’s best weapons is the absolutely luscious cinematography. I once read an interview with him where he said that while he respects the articulacy of directors like Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, he feels unable to put language on screen. What he can do, though, is paint a pretty picture – and boy is he good at that.
From the interiors near the ominous pool to the lingering bomb and the wide, empty landscapes, everything is filmed beautifully. Apparent secondary characteristics like Carmen’s wooden leg or the vest in which Jacinto prances, like a young Marlon Brando, become essential parts of the scenery. There could be no dialogue at all, and we would still be mindblown by how everything looks.
On top of all this, this is a ghost story with politics. If you don’t have a working knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, there’s still more than enough for you to be able to keep up, but the supernatural tale is expertly accompanied by an ominous sense of dread at the rise of Fascism – both in Franco’s Spain and worldwide.
All of this very much makes The Devil’s Backbone strikingly contemporary. There is a scene towards the end when the helpless orphans join forces to confront the Fascist Jacinto. There seems no way that they can win – and historically, they lost – but the film contains an urgent sense of the need to stand up against authoritarianism, whatever the odds.
For some reason, I had got this far in my life without seeing The Devil’s Backbone. It was always something I wanted to see, but was never on at the right time. I was therefore expecting tonight’s showing – on a regular schlock horror evening that is normally sold out – to be absolutely heaving. The cinema was half full. Pearls before swine.
You can watch The Devil’s Backbone and not see half of the things I’ve mentioned. This is not because I’m so much more clever than you, but because it is a perfect conduit for your own thoughts. This is an intelligent film that meets you halfway, but is open for negotiation. Cinema which makes you both think and shriek. What’s not to like?