Fango Flashback: “WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?” (1976)
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador’s WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? is its decision to trade backstory for context. There’s no explicit, supernatural reason for the juvenile murderous rampage on the island of Almanzora, but if you’re looking for an explanation why, the real world horrors of the opening titles are a good, if grim, place to start.
That stark, unsettling opening sequence effectively works two ways. For those audiences with trepidation about a fictional account of children murdering and subsequently being murdered, it serves as a reminder of the non-fictional children who’ve suffered at the hands of the Holocaust, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Korean War and general poor conditions in certain non-affluent, non-Western corners of the world. There’s little chance this film will be more frightening.
Secondly, the youth that aren’t physically harmed by the constant conflict are nonetheless affected. There’s a new breed of children in the making, with all they see around them infesting their daily lives and even their play time. These sentiments hang over the entirety of WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? As the film transitions to its narrative, the images leave behind atrocity for an idyllic beach scene, until moments later a corpse washes ashore. “We’re not so far from those horrors,” Serrador seems to be reminding, “and they’re spreading even to your Western holiday.”
As the ambulance rushes the dead body away, so as not to disturb the summer activities, we meet Tom and Evelyn. The baby-expecting, vacationing couple makes their way through a kind of battlefield that is Benavis. Fireworks crack all around, throngs of people block their way and children violently swing at a piñata; a moment mimicked later on, in a much bloodier manner. Finally, just before they set off for the real destination—one that holds great nostalgia for Tom—violent news footage reappears, with a shopkeeper commenting, “The world is crazy. In the end, the ones who always suffer the most are the children. From war? The children. From famine? The children.” Evelyn, about to bring another child into this world, doesn’t speak Spanish. She doesn’t understand.
Upon arrival in Almanzora, Tom fights hard to maintain it as the same place from his memory. It’s Evelyn’s first time on the island, so we must assume Tom flew solo on his initial adventures. So now, regardless of how the children are acting, it could never be the same. Marriage and infants change the way you travel and the growing number of menacing young bodies mirror the expanding of Tom and Evelyn’s family.
Now, Almanzora is a no man’s land where children of wars no longer suffer. They’ve internalized the world around them into their daily routine and commit murder midst play, or murder-as-play. They are anti-social to the adults that come near, even as one young girl (Lourdes) connects with Evelyn’s still-in-the-womb baby. From there, the kids continue the spread of influence that has a hold over them. On the other side of Almanzora, they need only stare hard at still-pure peers to bring them over. When engaging in violent attack, the children use actual tactics. They lure. They cooperate to break down doors. They climb into unseen nooks, as if guerrillas Evelyn, before her own child turns on her, asks mortified, “Do they even know what they’re doing?”
Yes and no seem to be the answers. When one of their own is shot down, the children finally appear to understand repercussions they previously hadn’t But still, this is all a game to them (remember the piñata?) At the same time, Lourdes’ last line is telling. After the film’s bleak climax, and the killer kids assume their place as the future, they set off for mainland Europe. She asks, “Do you think the other children there will start playing the way we do?” Serrador seems to worry they already had.