At 7 p.m. on Oct. 30 in the Old Main theater, the Spanish Film Festival put on by the Department of English, Philosophy and Modern Languages, screened Guillermo Del Toro’s 2001 film “El Espinazo Del Diablo” or “The Devil’s Backbone”. Building on the festivals’ theme, “Film and Fascism in Franco Spain”, the movie takes place in 1939, during the final year of the Spanish Civil War, with Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces closing in on the last fighting Republican leftists.
The setting is an isolated orphanage, where a group of boys face the dangers brought upon the institution by a greedy and violent caretaker named Jacinto, who will stop at nothing to claim the school’s hoarded, rebel gold. His actions have already claimed the life of a young orphan, who now roams the building as a ghost.
Two students of the class which hosts the festival gave presentations before the film, outlining the themes, explaining the history, and encouraging an interpretive approach to the viewing. For them, the core theme of the film is trauma, represented by the ghosts haunting the orphanage, which represents Spain itself. The boys of the orphanage are the people of Spain, isolated, naïve and tormented by both the caretaker and the ghosts and trauma he has created. Jacinto, in his macho, greedy and brutish behavior, may be interpreted as Franco himself; a tyrant seeking only personal gain, who will inevitably cause the downfall of the orphanage, or Spain, itself.
These themes are not only relevant to a specific time and country, but are universally applicable. By passing on stories of fascism, the purposeful act of ignoring it, or the ill effects of greed, selfishness and brutality, we pass on warnings packaged in fantastic tales that could mean the end of another future regime before it even begins.
The film, made in the 21st century, almost thirty years after Francoism, is an important part of remembering, processing, and monumentalizing the events of this specific part of history. In 1977, two years after the death of Francisco Franco, Spain instituted a pact of forgetting—aiming to look solely at the future of the country. But by doing this, the country was failing to correctly move on from a tragedy. Trauma must be addressed, dealt with; those responsible must be held accountable, and the history must be discussed and passed on in order to keep it from happening again. Trauma cannot and should not be ignored.
The closing lines of the film address this idea. A voiceover by one of the characters contemplates the events of the film, and thereby the events of the war, the pact of forgetting and the nasty way in which past trauma can reappear in the present if not properly dealt with.
“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
The next film in the series will be “Pan’s Labyrinth”, another film by Guillermo Del Toro. It will be screened Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 7 p.m. in Old Main.