Like "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Devil's Backbone" is set during the Spanish Civil War. This war began in 1936 and ended in 1939, with the victory of the rebels against the Second Spanish Republic government, leading to the establishment of the dictatorship of Nationalist General Francisco Franco. The republicanos or Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union and Mexico. Because of the Soviet support, they were seen as communists and referred to as reds. The supporters of the rebellion, nacionales or Nationalists, had the support Italy and Germany, already united as the European Axis powers. Although Germany would later persecute Catholics, in Spain, the nacionales had the support of the Roman Catholic clergy.
As in "Pan's Labyrinth," the audience is asked to sympathize with the republicanos, war is seen through the eyes of children and a doctor plays a pivotal role. Yet while "Pan's Labyrinth" is an adult fairytale, "The Devil's Backbone" is a ghost story. This isn't a Hollywood fright tale, with screaming and stupid teens. This is a gentle, thoughtful tale, with a logic of its own, a story about impotence, war and revenge.
According to the DVD commentary, del Toro is uncomfortable with writing dialogue. He prefers images. It seems logical then, that the commentary is provided by del Toro and Guillermo Navarro. Del Toro talks about the repetition of images and that this movie is meant to be visual poetry. Navarro's camera operates as another witness, a restless witness, always moving. This affable pair give an entertaining and informative commentary.
The movie begins with images that we don't completely understand and words that set up a mystery.
What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain perhaps. Somthing dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect taped in amber.
The palette is dominated by the steely blue and blue-black of the night contrast the golden fields and light and the friendly blue skies of the day. The colors are deeply saturated like an impressionistic painting and the shadows seem to swallow up faces although there are strikingly dramatic rim shots. The obscuring of faces makes one peer into the darkness, looking for whatever details might be given.
Set in 1939, a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), is brought by his tutor to an orphanage. Carlos doesn't yet know that his father, a republicano, has been killed. His tutor deserts him there, in the care of the strict but caring head mistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi). Casares is in love with Carmen and refuses to return to Argentina although he player tango music on his gramophone. Carmen, widowed, has a physical relationship with one of the former orphans, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who has returned to work as a handyman. Jacinto is also involved with Conchita (Irene Visedo) who is closer to his age and works in the kitchen. Carlos' main tormentor, the tallest of the orphans, Jaime (Iñigo Garcés), is infatuated with Conchita. Yet Jacinto has a secret. Deeply ashamed of his 15 years at the orphanage, he stays, searching for the gold ingots the republicanos left in the care of Carmen. Jaime was somehow involved in the disappearance of Santi (Junio Valverde), who may or may not be the ghostly figure that Carlos calls "the one who sighs."
The devil's backbone, according to Dr. Casares, is what superstitious villagers call fetuses with spina bifida. If you're not familiar with the developmental birth defect, it is the incomplete closure of embryonic neural tube. The spinal cord is incompletely formed and the vertebrae is not fully formed and remains unfused and open. The spinal cord protrudes through the opening in the bones. In order to provide some money for the orphanage, the doctor plays on the local superstitions; the preserved fetuses are embalmed in spices and rum and the rum is believed to cure various ailments, most importantly impotence.
These incompletely formed children are nobody's children, but according to the doctor, they are the result of poverty and ignorance. Likewise the war produces orphans who belong to no one. Their fathers won't be honored as heroes and they enter into a world of poverty and fear. Perhaps like Jacinto, they will be emotionally crippled, princes without a kingdom and young boys without a family. What could be a more mournful ghost story? Perhaps war and the resulting orphans are "a tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?"