El Espinazo Del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) reviewed
“El Espinazo del Diablo” is a dense political allegory set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War that uses its ghost story to draw through its heavy webbing of symbolism. The film opens by following a bomb as it falls from the bay of one of Franco’s bombers, then moves on to follow a 12-year-old boy, Carlos, who is sent to a remote school for orphans because, we learn, the bomb has killed his parents. The staff and students of the school are an isolated surrogate family, and the film wastes no time in establishing the Freudian psychodramas that form the core of the film’s story.
Even as Franco’s forces are closing in, Carmen, the one-legged, widowed head mistress of the school remains loyal to the Republicans, hiding gold bars in on their behalf. Her sympathies are shared by Cesares, the elderly but cultured school physician. Cesares is in love with Carmen, and Carmen seems to care for him, but the old man is impotent, we soon find out, so Carmen has the school’s groundskeeper, Jacinto, a former student at the orphanage, visiting her bed in secret. At the same time, Jacinto is planning an idealized future with Conchita, one of the school’s young teachers.
Meanwhile, Carlos discovers the two other menacing figures that linger throughout the film. A bomb was dropped undetonated into the school’s courtyard, and may or may not have been disarmed (“you can still hear it ticking,” one of the boys tells Carlos). He also begins first to hear, then to see, the ghost in the film, “the one who sighs.” He struggles to find out the ghost’s secret before the world explodes around him. As the ghost revels the secrets held within the school’s history, the dreadful realities of war and human nature close in on the school.
The film is exquisitely shot and directed, and, for the most part well-acted. Reviewers have noted the affinity between director del Toro and Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose films deal with what has been called “body horror”—deformities, disease, mutations, and injuries—in obsessively gruesome detail. “El Espinoza Del Diablo” is equally obsessed with body horror. The film’s title, translated into English as “the devil’s backbone,” is a reference to a birth defect (characterized by a portion of the spine being exposed) caused by the horrible conditions the war has forced the people of a nearby town to live under. Cesares shows Carlos a collection of fetuses he keeps preserved jars filled with brandy in his lab.
In order to raise money to buy food for the school, he explains, he takes jars of the brandy into the village to sell to sell to the villagers, who drink it as a tonic against other kinds of evil. All empty superstition, he says, then, once Carlos has left, he himself has a taste. One-legged widows, impotence, ghostly, drowned flesh, wounds of various shapes and sizes—nothing is spared. All of this is intended to be a metaphor for the plight of the Spanish people during the war, but with so many grim images, it’s easy to lose sight of the film’s true allegorical intent—the physical, social, political, and psychological desperation that fueled the fires of the Spanish Civil War. The movie’s message becomes more resonant as you gain some psychological distance from Del Toro’s imagery.
This film is not a good choice for the faint of heart (so don’t bring a first date to it). The allegory is laid on a bit thick at times (the amateur Freudianism applied to the film’s sexual relationships is particular overwrought), and the “who done it” aspect of the ghost story is fairly obvious if you’re paying attention (even Dr. Crowe could have figured this one out before the end of the film). But, despite its imperfections, “El Espinaza Del Diablo” is a visually striking, jarringly effective psycho-political drama that is refreshingly free of Hollywood conventions.
Matt Parks (March 17, 2002)