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The Devil's Backbone

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
The Devil's Backbone
from Film Forum, 02/14/02

The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. Boys orphaned by the war are sent to an orphanage, where a defective bomb dropped from an airplane looms ominously in the middle of the complex, a clear symbol for a conflict within the orphanage that will inevitably explode. When young Jacinto learns there is a child-ghost haunting the place, he fights back his fear and seeks the ghost out to discern why the spirit is so troubled. What he learns is a tragic story that underlines how one act of violence can lead to unforeseen consequences—a chain reaction of increasing violence ending in calamity and bloodshed.

In most movies, says Parks, "death is usually just a plot device or, worse, a sign of victory, a validation of the hero's power. It is rare to find any movie that tries to convey actual pain. Instead, we're programmed to think violence doesn't have any results, that killing and maiming are routine." Not so in The Devil's Backbone. It's a film, Parks writes, "that speaks to our present and very human condition, that reminds us of the cost of violence but also the virtues of love and sacrifice, that wipes the mist from our eyes and helps us to see things as they are, and that reminds us that the ghosts of history must be dealt with and not ignored."

I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment, and would encourage believers to interpret the film carefully. The purpose of the film is not to make people afraid of ghosts or to encourage investigation of occult phenomena, but to help us think about how violent acts—between people and between nations—leave behind wounded people who will neither forget nor often forgive.

from Film Forum, 02/28/02

For almost as long as people have built campfires, ghost stories have teased us with ideas about life after death. The greatest artists have wrestled with their fear and curiosity by giving shape to their afterlife imaginings, whether inspiring or terrible.

Shakespeare's famous ghost, Hamlet's murdered father, is one of the most haunting phantoms in all of literature, with his tales of hellish torment and his appeal to Hamlet for justice and vengeance. Movies frequently echo this episode—in The Devil's Backbone, a murdered child appeared to some orphans, leading them to avenge a horrible wrong. I found the film to be one of those rare ghost stories that rises above simple tricks and surprises to become a profound work of art. The ghost became a symbol of war's innocent casualties, those who are ignored by powerful clashing armies and then left behind, forgotten, devastated, with no one to avenge them.

But finding a meaningful ghost story is a challenge. Most cinematic spook-stories recall another Shakespeare line—"A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Most are so sloppily told that some Christian film critics go so far as to ignore or condemn any movie in which heroes come into contact with ghosts.