What is a ghost?
A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time 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.
— Narrator, The Devil’s Backbone
Whether as writer, director, or producer, Guillermo del Toro is known for films which mesh fairy tales and horror, among them Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and Julia’s Eyes. Many of his films are classified as “dark Spanish fantasy” or “gothic horror,” and his films are, indeed, full of horror. Del Toro has called The Devil’s Backbone (2001) his “most personal film.” Like many of his others, this film features ghosts, orphans, and abandoned children, all tangled together, trying desperately to survive and to figure out what has happened to their previously happy lives. Ghosts and murder, betrayal and tragedy, pain and destiny and loneliness: these are the themes of The Devil’s Backbone, where evil is not so much supernatural as it is a daily human reality. In The Devil’s Backbone, the most terrifying evil is not external but, instead, within the humans themselves.
At an isolated orphanage in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, Headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is an amputee, secretly supports partisans, and has a stash of gold intended to aid their cause.
The co-director of the orphanage is Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), who has long been in love with Carmen, and who is helping her hide gold for the Resistance.
A young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), is left at the Home by his tutor, who neglects to tell the boy that his father is dead, killed in the War. Before Carlos even realizes that he will be permanently staying at the orphanage, he sees the ghost of a boy his own age.
Though the other orphans speak in whispers in the dark of night of “the one who sighs,” the adults do not even discuss the War with the children, though it has affected all the boys’ lives, let alone talk about a ghost or anything else supernatural with them. The orphans make up their own stories about the ghost and why it may be haunting the orphanage. The orphans do not know the ghost’s “secret,” so they make up reasons for its haunting the Home.
The adults don’t seem to know about the ghost, but all the adults at the Home have secrets, none more so than the violent and angry caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). He was once an orphan at the Home himself and has returned only to get at the hidden stash of partisan-gold.
Jacinto terrorizes and abuses the orphan boys. He steals keys at night to secretly search for the hidden gold. He ruthlessly manipulates the women at the school by having sexual relations with several of them, pretending to be emotionally attached to each of them, including Headmistress Carmen and young Conchita (Irene Visedo, below L), who is herself in love with Jacinto.
And this is the place where young Carlos is now trapped, like the ghost that he keeps seeing. Unfortunately for Carlos, Jacinto is not the only person at the Home who bullies the boys. One of the orphans, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés, below L), is just as ferocious and tyrannical as Jacinto.
Jaime, who is in love with the pretty Conchita, takes out his frustrated, unrequited love on the younger boys, especially on the ten-year-old, fellow orphan Carlos.
To deal with his own emotional pain, abandonment, and loss, Carlos decides to overcome his terror of the ghost. He begins to investigate the boy-ghost, hoping to discover the ghost’s secret. How did a mere boy, after all, become a ghost trapped for eternity at the Home? Did the boy die in the War, or did he die in the orphanage itself? If the boy did, in fact, die at the Home — which would explain why the ghost is still there, haunting the other orphans — how did the young boy die? Was he a victim of illness, accident, or murder?
Carlos is desperate to discover the ghost’s secret before he himself is killed — by Jacinto, by Jaime, or by another wayward bomb like the unexploded one in the Home’s courtyard — and becomes a ghost forever trapped in the place Carlos hates most in all the world.
In Spanish with subtitles, The Devil’s Backbone is as much about the perils of war as about ghosts, and as much about man’s cruelty to each other as it is about the things that haunt us, whether they be the pain of abandonment, ghosts that roam the corridors at night, or our own secret pasts.