Guillermo Del Toro’s 2001 The Devils Backbone takes place in 1939, the final year of the Spanish civil war and follows Carlos, a 12 year old boy, left at an orphanage after his republican father’s death in the ongoing war against the fascists. We soon find out that the orphanage is haunted by the ghost of murdered orphan Santi, as Del Toro toys with themes of the supernatural and fantasy to mirror and symbolise the effects and pressures the Spanish civil war had on the country and its people in years to come.
Jacinto, the first and oldest orphan at the orphanage and the murderer of Santi, is the embodiment of Francisco Franco, the commander-in-chief of the fascist nationalist forces and eventual dictator from 1939-1975. Much like Franco, Jacinto is oppressive and will commit heinous acts to achieve his goal (finding the gold and gaining infinite wealth), the Spanish civil war was the first time a country had dropped bombs on its own people and this is mirrored closely in the film when Jacinto blows up the orphanage, killing and maiming many innocent children. Because of these similarities it is clear to see Del Toro uses Jacinto as a vessel to embody Franco and the nationalists so we as an audience can observe the attitudes the Spanish people had towards him.
Once we determine how Del Toro uses Jacinto to symbolise Franco, we can then start to analyse his use of supernatural and fantasy elements. The ghost of Santi is used to show the traumatic memories of the war as he is always present in the background, present like the constant pain and reminder of the war on the Spanish people who would soon have to live in a harsh dictatorship. The ghosts in del Toro’s film do not tell how to live with them once they are found; on the contrary, they admit the fact that they have always already been there and that they need to stay to ideologically support the notion of a Spanish nation. (Ibarra, p.39)
The clip “introduces the viewers to two juxtaposed worlds, one of ghosts and one of war” (Hardcastle, p. 119) but the pre-credit scene also theorizes that a ghost could potentially be “a tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?”. If we assume this is what Del Toro’s interpretation of what a ghost is, we can see that to him that a ghost encapsulates the trauma of its past life, it relives it memories and never forgets. This can be seen even in Santi’s appearance as his most distinctive feature is the blood emanating from the top of his head, which shows the damage caused by Jacinto.
So, if we assume that Jacinto is the embodiment of Franco and the Nationalist party and Santi is a metaphor for the Spanish people and their memories of the war, we can observe how Del Toro uses fantasy to mirror reality. Jacinto’s past comes back to haunt him and ultimately causes his demise as the ghost of Santi is the one to kill him, much how like years of pressure from the Spanish people caused the demise of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975.
In conclusion, we can observe that despite the fact Del Toro uses fantasy elements in the film, The Devils Backbone is a well observed depiction and metaphor of the struggles and mentality of the Spanish people in regards to the oppressive nature and tragic results of the Spanish Civil War.
Hardcastle, A. E. (2005). Ghosts of the Past and Present: Hauntology and the Spanish Civil War in Guillermo del Toro’s” The Devil’s Backbone”. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 15(2 (58), p. 119
Ibarra, E. A. (2012). Permanent hauntings: spectral fantasies and national trauma in Guillermo del Toro’s El espinazo del diablo [The Devil’s Backbone]. Journal of Romance Studies, 12(1), 56-71.
The Devil’s Backbone pre-credit Scene – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5py2QPbxco