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Devil's Backbone

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Film Guide/Study Questions The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)
First impressions
It is always a good idea to register your response to a film right after viewing as you are still emotionally involved in the story. Use some of these points to help you. 1. Did you like or dislike the film? Why? (either answer is valid – but it is always interesting to explore the reasons).
I did like the film because of the beautiful barren imagery, ingenious use of symbolism and Del Toro’s unique way of bringing out societal issues in a highly suggestive manner. I also enjoyed the role of the ghost to push the story line forwards with each apparition.

2. What, do you believe is the main theme of the film?
The Spanish Civil War, more specifically how Franco’s army and the right-winged parties consolidated while the left-winged opposition fragmented and was, eventually, forced out. Also there is a general message about war and how such terrifying events can rob children of their childhoods.

3. Were you frightened during the story? Of what? Which characters were more frightening – Santi? Jacinto? Did this response change as the film progressed? If so, how?
At first the movie seems like any other typical ghost/horror story, where one grows weary of the ghost’s presence primarily due to fear of the unknown. However, as the storyline develops, one becomes uncomfortably accustomed to the ghost’s appearance. Furthermore, after learning the circumstances behind Santi’s death and Jacinto’s involvement in the murder, one becomes morally sympathetic of Santi’s cause. Consequently Jacinto becomes more frightening as a character given he proves himself unremorsefully capable of murder. By the end of the film it is evident that ‘true’ evil manifests only through the actions of the living, where ghosts are but a trace of the pain inflicted by those who were once living people.

4. Briefly describe a scene in the film that stood out for you, and your response to it.
A scene that stood out for me was when the enormous shell falls from the sky and impales into the mud. The fact that the shell falls right after Santi’s death reveals its purpose to the story. Even though Santi’s body may have disappeared underwater, the shell is too large to be moved and cannot be hidden by water or, in this case, rain. Consequently, the shell’s presence serves as a relentless reminder of Santi’s murder to all.
I believe that symbolically, the shell, only half buried and dissimulated with flowerpots, represents the awkwardness of the half covered bodies of those that were killed during the Spanish Civil War. They may be out of sight but even today remain present in people’s minds. In other words it is the elephant in the room, or in this case, the bombshell in the courtyard. The shell, much like the conflict surrounding the bodies of those who died in the Spanish Civil War, still ‘ticks’ according to the children. It represents an unresolved matter that will not stop ticking, making noise and being awkward until it finally detonates. Crooked as it stands, the shell is only a card in a game of evil, where war is the devil’s backbone. 5. The director’s image of war: “I wanted to have a symbol in the movie that represented war because the orphanage is so far away. I needed something that was almost like a totem that reminded you that you may be very far away geographically, but here I am, I’m war. And on the other hand, I wanted very much to have a symbol that didn’t ‘pay off’ like in a Hollywood movie that is, that exploded at the end. I actually very purposely decided that there was a huge explosion but the bomb remained unexploded. And the reason for this is found in the inaction of the objects, because the only way I can deal with war in this is to say: “And the bomb is still unexploded in the middle of the patio.” And that’s one of the last images in the epilogue – the bomb still there standing proud in the middle of the courtyard.”

Are you satisfied with the direction the director has taken with this imagery? (How is it effective or ineffective, in your view?):

I believe it was effective because if the shell had exploded, there would have been nothing left to think about. The problem, the awkwardness of the bomb remains as though suggesting that once all the characters involved in the story have left the picture, there is still a bomb left to deal with.
The use of the shell was highly effective also because it portrays the ridicule and randomness of war, where one day you are minding your own business when all of a sudden a massive shell falls from the sky right at your feet.
Finally, I believe the sheer size of the shell was effectively used to make the Spanish audience relate to the heavy burden that was placed on Jaime by trying to turn the blind eye to a buried body.

Reading Questions (Del Toro interview and Hardcastle’s “Ghosts of the Past and Present…” 1. How does Del Toro describe the image of the ghost? How does he connect this interpretation of the ghosts that haunt us with the image of an “insect trapped in amber” – part of the quote with which the film begins and ends?

Del Toro describes the image of the ghost as “An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain, perhaps… like a blurry photograph… like an insect trapped in amber”. Insects trapped in amber are preserved and left untouched over the years. Like ghosts, they show the life the insect led at the moment it died. Frozen in time and unaffected by change. 2. What is the specific instance of betrayal/trauma in the past that the film narrates, and what is the broader historical trauma that the film evokes and entwines with this event? In effect, who is the literal ghost of the film and what is the figurative ghost? In what way does the dropping of the bomb link these 2 histories (and their ‘ghosts’) within the film?
The film’s ultimate moment of trauma/betrayal is when Jaime witnesses Santi’s murder but is too fearful to tell anybody what he saw due to fear. Santi is the literal ghost due to his spectral appearance, while the figurative ghost is a combination of all those that were buried in ditches during the Spanish Civil War. The dropping of the bomb links these two events by falling right after Santi’s death, symbolic of the weight both Jaime and Spain must carry in their conscience. The way that the bomb is treated also is symbolic of its historical context. Too large to move it, the government offers a quick fix by deactivating it. However, the bomb is only half buried and therefore still visible and present in people’s minds.

3. On an allegorical level, what do various of the characters in the film seem to represent, or to evoke?
Santi: The ghost of the past, he embodies those fallen and concealed.
Carlos: The modern Spaniard, seeking closure for the past.
Jacinto: The violent Youth, Anarchism
Dr. Casares: The leader of the Republican party.
Orphaned children: Republican soldiers.

Correspondingly, on an allegorical level, what historical power relationship does Jacinto’s violent destruction of the orphanage and murder of Carmen and Dr. Casares evoke ?

July 18 1936, there was a military coup to overthrow the elected government in Spain led by the extreme right wing. Jacinto embodies that violent attempt to break the spirits of the left winged allies. Jacinto kills Carmen in a purge-like manner where nobody can see him. But not before he uses a bomb to blow up the orphanage, in the same way Franco used Hitler’s arsenal to carpet bomb Guernica, killing and harming many unarmed civilians.

In turn, on an allegorical level, what might the liberation of the orphans from the closet by Dr. Casares’ ghost, and their murder of Jacinto at the end of the film suggest?

The liberation of the orphans from the closet by Dr. Casares suggests that not all ghosts are evil, but rather that ghost’s presence is due to unfinished business. Allegorically, it represents the exile of the Republicans to other areas, such as the South of France. The orphans’ victory over Jacinto at the end of the film suggests that the Republican Party won the struggle but lost the war. The image of the children walking out into the dessert highlights the lack of a victory thereof.

4. Hardcastle addresses the concept of “hauntology” as “history’s ability to haunt contemporary society.” In what ways does she suggest that Del Toro’s film revisits and revises history to confront the unwelcome ghosts of the past? That is, in what ways does Del Toro’s ‘fantastical’ version contrast with historical reality? Why might Del Toro have chosen to reconstruct the narrative in this way?
The past will always be a part of the present. Del Toro revisits the events that took place during the Spanish Civil War through his characters’ interactions with one another and revises history by allowing the children to carry out their revenge on Jacinto to achieve closure and thereby get rid of Santi’s haunting presence. Del Toro’s fantastical version overlaps with historical reality in many forms. First of all, his choice of setting the story in an orphanage in the middle of the dessert is representative of the stronghold the second republican government faced in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and at the brink of WWII. With no allies in site and limited supplies, the government in power must fend off the aggressive right winged attacks. The children, too young to fight, represent the unfairness of the battle between the two confronting sides. Del Toro may have chosen to reconstruct the narrative in this way because he is sympathetic towards the left winged efforts despite their eventual loss. By having them exercise their revenge on Jacinto, Del Toro allows for closure to exist within his story, but the fact that the children are left homeless and are forced to wonder off into the dessert is symbolic of the Republican’s exile once the war was over.

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