Back in college, my film professor spoke of some of the last remaining taboos in film. One of the largest taboos, he claimed, was that children – child actors, not dolls – were never explicitly shown in violent death on-screen. The unflinching death of a child, more specifically a murder, was off-limits for many filmmakers. He urged us to list examples of when we actually got to see a child character die a violent death in front of the camera. All examples, most notably Pet Semetery from this group, were debunked as the camera, the eye of the audience, in essence has to look away from the act itself because it’s too horrifying. He wondered aloud who would be the first filmmaker to break that taboo, and how tasteless it would be.
I put my money on Takashi Miike. I was dead wrong. Of all people, the first time I watched a child die on screen was in a Guillermo del Toro film. The first example that many would site before this film is the death of Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, but there’s an interesting rub to that one: we don’t watch Ofelia get shot. We do not see a bullet enter her. The gun is pointed off camera. We see her flinch, we see her bleed, we see her corpse, but we do not get to witness her injury the way that del Toro presents the death of a child in The Devil’s Backbone. In fact, it’s the way that he treated Santi’s death in The Devil’s Backbone that really cements the acceptance of this taboo challenge.
When we first begin watching Santi die at the start of the movie, Jaime is crying over him; we think Jaime has killed him, and are further lead to believe this assumption based upon his bullying behavior for the first hour and fifteen minutes of the film. We believe the inference because conventional wisdom tells us that, deep down, we won’t get to see the gritty details. However, when we get to see what actually happened, Jacinto’s murder of Santi is very explicit. The camera doesn’t move away from the action. In fact, we’re more in touch with Santi at the moment of his death: when Santi smacks his head – which we do indeed get to witness – there’s a brief moment of a bright flash of light. We see him begin to go into shock. We see him get bound and tossed into the pool. The entire time, del Toro does not look away.
So how is del Toro able to break the taboo in showing Santi being murdered? He treats the character with respect and a sense of justice. Far from gratuitous, the scene is a factual account of a terrible event. The effects are not gory, with twenty gallons of fake blood pouring from the wound. It’s not loud and melodramatic. It furthers the story and connects us to the characters, both dead and alive. It gives us a bond of fear with Jaime. It makes Carlos finally understand that the ghost is not the villain. It makes us hate Jacinto for not trying to save Santi. Jacinto disposes of the body as though Santi is nothing. We experience all of this and get enraged. We’re scared for the children of the orphanage because we don’t want the same thing to happen to them. We want Jacinto stopped.
The most extraordinary thing that del Toro does is that he does not make the children into monsters. They attack Jacinto out of the necessity that he will kill them if they don’t defend themselves; however, Carlos does not stab Jacinto. Rather, he pushes him into the pool, effectively giving him to Santi as requested. What does Santi do? He does not drag Jacinto down into the depths, but instead embraces him. A simple hug, quite literally the embrace of death. Rather than scratch or claw or take revenge, Santi hugs. There’s a surprising amount of mercy in the action. del Toro does not allow his protagonists to become murderers themselves, and for this reason, we can cheer the death of the murderer because the victims get to remain children.
Will others come along and take up this taboo? Most likely. Movies are getting gorier by the day in a bid to out-shock each other. I can guarantee that the results will not have nearly half the impact that this film’s scene did. Santi’s death in The Devil’s Backbone takes us to another place entirely: the presentation of the action, the inspiration of the audience, and the retention of humanity of its characters. In short, del Toro successfully challenged this taboo by handling it with class and respect.