The Orphanage

El orfanato

5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: January 14, 2008
Reviewed at the 2008 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Simon says "Play dead!"

A cinematic visit to the Good Shepherd’s Orphanage—whether you’re very much alive, nearing the end of the trail or happily ensconced on the other side—satisfies on so many levels that it’s inexorably bound for classic/cult status.

For those who crave a good scare, Laura’s (Belén Rueda’s devotion would make any mother proud) return to her home-away-from-parents, where she and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) plan to refurbish the time-worn Gothic mansion (complete with spooky ocean caves and a nearby lighthouse that isn’t supposed to be working …) and care for a brood of present-day troubled children is a premise that’s loaded with hair-raising potential. Beyond the creaky doors, hidden passageways and countless “bumps in the night,” it appears that the ghosts of orphans-past are also residing within the very same walls from which Laura only managed to escape via adoption three decades ago.

Following an unwelcome intrusion by social worker Benigna (Montserrat Carulla, perfectly evil at every turn), who knows far more than she should about Laura’s own adopted child, Simon (Roger Príncep as the curly-head HIV+ son delivers boyish charm and manic rage with skill that will be the envy of many more experienced actors), the tension soars in concert with the arrival of the new charges. Prior to joining the outdoor welcome party, Simon insists on showing his mom the dwelling place of Tomás (Óscar Casas)—the newest member of Simon’s rapidly-expanding circle of invisible friends. Her steadfast refusal ignites a temper tantrum that eventually culminates in serious hand/leg injuries to Laura and the disappearance of her game-loving son (find-the-treasure is the current favourite).

During these riveting sequences the brilliant work of cinematographer Óscar Faura, editor Elena Ruiz and the entire visual effects crew leave all concerned (on both sides of the screen) wondering if this bloody mayhem has been accomplished by the invisible kids or a petulant son playing deadly tricks of the most dangerous kind.

From here—and for those who savour a healthy dose of “Who done it?”—director Juan Antonio Bayona follows the efforts of the reeling couple (How could they care for other children if their own vanishes in broad daylight?) and the local cops try to find both Simon and his abductors. The only real lead (Laura’s visions of long-dead orphans are dismissed as motherly delusions) is the disturbing news that Benigna is not a social worker but former guardian of young lives (briefly including Laura’s during her stint at the group home for the abandoned). Months later the coke-glass lens sporting, frail and aged liar, pushing a baby carriage through an intersection, comes unexpectedly within a few feet of Laura and Carlos—desperate to interrogate the old witch. But before the first question can be asked, there’s a special treat for those who love to slow down and peer at highway carnage in hopes that there will be blood. Others may be moved in a different part of their anatomy.

After traditional investigative methods come up empty, occult devotees will salivate as Aurora (Geraldine Chapman) and her crew (Andrés Gertúdix, Edgar Vivar) are summoned to the scene of the crime. Using a battery of cameras and microphones pre-arranged in key rooms, the medium slips over to the dark side, wanders the haunted halls—alone—and finally comes upon a quintet of the undead tykes. Here, Bayona opts for the Hitchcock approach of “leave this horror to the viewers’ imagination—theirs is always more gruesome than mine,” which will have film students and historians cheering the homage and preparing footnotes for future dissertations.

For many, the layers already described above are more than enough to raise “two thumbs up” to this script-smart tale (Sergio G. Sánchez) of ghouls, grief and grit.

However, the creative trust hasn’t forgotten those who love their art served up rich in metaphor and message. The notion of Tomás and his horrendous facial disfigurement leading to a bully-boy drowning hits many chords in our beauty-at-all costs, the ugly-shall-inherit-nothing world. Given the opportunity—no matter how far-fetched the circumstances—who would begrudge him the sweet taste from the cup of revenge?

Yet a much wider swath of humanity will nod knowingly when Aurora—after failing to “see” if Simon was amongst the lost children during her trance—advises the desolate mother to “believe” and she, too will be able to communicate with her missing boy—no matter where he might be.

Of course, the final sequence has to expel Carlos, leaving Laura to—literally—set the stage for her encounter by returning the orphanage to the same state it was when she left it ‘lo those many years ago. Donning her former (largely “forgotten,” repression being what it is) tormenter’s work smock is especially powerful.

Here is where this film enters a too-seldom found plane, going beyond merely terrifying to achieve even greater value as it unequivocally demonstrates the awesome power of belief.

No spoilers here. Suffice it to say that those who are exclusively wedded to a life based on provable facts are likely to be left at the altar of loneliness and despair when faced with unimaginable problems. JWR

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