Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. In Cronos, a young girl keeps life-giving insects inside her innocent-looking dolly while the “funny shoes” boy from the underrated Mimic prognosticates entomological death without losing a body part of his own. With The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro pulls an Amenábar by dishing out sophisticated war commentary with bone-chilling dread. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool. When a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself.
The abandoned Carlos learns to put a lid on his prissy behavior with the help of his mentors: Cásares (Federico Luppi), the orphanage’s aged professor/doctor, and Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the one-legged ex-wife of a famed leftist poet. The bomb from the film’s opening sequence still lies in the center of the orphanage’s courtyard; this is del Toro’s remarkable way of displacing the past into the present. Carlos collects the snails that emanate from the school’s basement, oblivious to the ghostly wails that allude to some unfinished business. Carmen clings to her nationalist ideals and her hidden bars of gold while promising her youth refuge from the war still going on in the distant horizon. Santi (Junio Valverde) arises from his swampy tomb, seemingly bemoaning his own abandonment. Carmen tells Carlos that many boys run away from her home, unaware that one was unceremoniously dropped into her stagnant pool.
Del Toro’s living ghosts are as stuck on the past as are his deadly apparitions. Santi is the devil’s backbone: a resurrected ghost never meant for human life, now a mere insect trapped in amber. Santi may represent the stifled Spanish citizen, rallying for the rights of the underclass by taking on the country’s political complacency; unlike Cásares, he is an unrealized man of essence. In this home of superstition, a viper is found in caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Loathsome despite his pretty looks, Jacinto beds the one-legged woman that saved him from himself when he was left at the orphanage. She clings to him incestuously while he schemes to take away from her the orphanage’s gold bars. Jacinto is not unlike a selfish revolutionary, so insensitive to his war-torn land that he will blow up his own family.
The Devil’s Backbone works both as art-house spooker and political allegory. Santi appears and disappears at will—he’s feared at night but forgotten during the day. As the sun burns above the orphanage’s desert home, young teacher Conchita (Irene Visedo) receives a makeshift ring from the hostile Jaime. Hormones blazing, Jaime could pass for a sympathetic Jacinto-lite—his future as a savior of Spain seemingly predicated on how the world deals with him at this precise moment. Conchita takes Jaime’s ring and tells Jacinto that it is nothing but “kids stuff.” But it is, though—these are not so much their acts of retaliation as they are signs that they are alive. It is from these actions that they summon their strength and band together against Jacinto. In negotiating Santi’s past, they ensure the solidarity of Spain’s future.