"What is a ghost?" asks the opening narration in Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001).
To the young boys of the orphanage, a ghost is the "one who sighs." Not one who shrieks, howls, or roars. The ghost they encounter is a sad, pathetic apparition of one of their own who was killed. The ghost is a lament, sorrow given form, and that tone carries throughout the film.
The Devil's Backbone begins with Carlos (Fernando Tielve) being dumped in a orphanage for the sons of Communist fighters during the Spanish Civil War. There, he encounters the kindly, intellectual Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), stern, one-legged principal Carmen (Marisa Paredes), bully Jaime (Inigo Garces), and handyman Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who grew up an orphan there himself. Things look grim. An unexploded bomb lays half buried in the school yard, the war between the Reds and Nationals draws closer, the orphanage officials struggle to care for their wards, and at night, Carlos encounters the ghost of a child wandering the building. Meanwhile, Jacinto, a nasty piece of work, looks to steal the gold loot the doctor and principal are hiding for the Communist cause.
Though set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil's Backbone keeps the ideologies of both sides distant and instead focuses on the immediate costs and hardships created by the conflict. While Casares and Carmen provide support the Reds, their primary concern is the welfare of the children, and they are presented as disillusioned with the cause. There are hungry children whose parents have been killed in the fighting to care for, and these boys are mostly likely doomed to always suffer and/or die as well. That's something ideologues don't mention when they press their respective causes. Buried beneath whatever glory or agenda they are fighting for, there are innocents caught in the middle.
Repression of that truth is a theme throughout the movie. The ghost himself was a murdered child whose death was covered up. Since there is no one to grieve for him, he must moan. He's the elephant in the room, or rather, the ticking bomb in the school yard. Is there no better metaphor for buried secrets? It's right there, out in the open, but people pretend to ignore it, failing to realize that won't prevent it from going off sooner or later. War is death, and the ghost and the bomb are reminders. In fact, they appeared at the orphanage on the same night.
del Toro uses his ghost wisely. He could have had it leap from around corners, accompanied by a loud noise on the soundtrack, but his technique is more haunting. We get a lot of long shots of the ghost in the background, barely noticeable. In one of its early close shots, it's hiding from Carlos; it still feels fear and sorrow. The tension really builds when its slowly approaches the other characters, giving them (and us) time to actually confront and ponder it. That's the really horror of the film: facing past deeds and not being able to hide from them.
The Devil's Backbone is strongly acted and shot, and even though many of the actors are kids, it's also one of the most mature and sophisticated ghost movies ever filmed. The opening narration offers many definitions of a ghost: something dead that seems alive, a blurred photograph, a moment of pain, an emotion suspended at time. The accomplishment of the film is to capture all those meanings.