Sunday, September 09, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "El Orfanato/The Orphanage"

(Spain, 110 minutes, 2007)
Written by Sergio G. Sánchez
Directed by Juan Atonio Bayona
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Geraldine Chaplin, Monsterrat Carulla, Roger Princep

This low-key ghost story will invite comparison to the literary frights of Shirley Jackson and Henry James, whose enduring tales of terror were as much about the demons of the mind as they were any spectral shenanigans, but it’s also a worthy addition to the Spanish fantasy film canon which includes the highly-personal and impeccably crafted works of Victor Erice, Alejandro Amenábar, Nacho Cerda, and Jaume Balagueró. The Orphanage will likely be sold on the participation of its esteemed producer--the recently coronated Guillermo del Toro-- but first-timer Bayona (a del Toro discovery) demonstrates he’s got the stuff to make it on his own.

We first meet Laura as a seven year old girl happily playing “statues”--a form of tag--with five friends at The Good Shepherd Orphanage on the Spanish coast.

Thirty-years later, adult Laura (Belén Rueda) convinces her new husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) to purchase the since-abandoned property as their home from which she can operate a daycare centre for special needs children.

Her seven-year old son Simón (Roger Princep) is a lonely but imaginative boy, finding comfort in his imaginary friends, especially “Tomas”, whose grotesque visage he repeatedly sketches. As they prepare to open, Laura and Carlos are visited by a mercurial social worker Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) who eventually reveals her agenda: her deformed son was killed at the orphanage when she was employed there and she blames the children. Simón, while on a scavenger hunt with his invisible playmates, eavesdrops and learns that he’s not only adopted, but HIV-positive. After an argument with his mother—in which he announces his plan to stay young forever just like “Peter Pan”-- Simón goes off to play “statues” with his five new “friends”, and disappears on the morning of the centre’s grand opening.

After six months of fruitless searching, Laura holds on to hope that Simón is still alive, even without his medication. Laura tracks down Benigna, but only to witness her death in a freak car accident. Desperate and frustrated with the police, she enlists the unique gifts of medium Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin). “Seeing is not believing”, Aurora tells her, “it’s the other way around.”

As Laura retraces her once idyllic memories, she becomes convinced that her childhood friends remain, and have snatched Simón to take her place.

Seasoned horror junkies will no doubt be shaking their heads by now: another psychic loner kid? More shock cuts to creepy children standing in ominous tableau? Haunting nursery rhymes? Eerie doll heads? Wasn’t this already done by another Spaniard—Alejandro Amenábar —in a little something called The Others? Well, yes and no, but before you dismiss it as so much John Saul fodder, I’ll admit that this sort of imagery--a rumpled button mask, torn wallpaper, tableaus of empty children’s’ beds, the ominous swooping beams of a nearby lighthouse--could have easily been overtly precious and self-consciously “classy” in the hands of a timid and less accomplished filmmaker.

But Bayona is not above in-your-face shocks —it’s just that his command of tried-and-true horror semantics and his confidence to freely chuck them to mine the silent spaces between the funhouse moments make the two lackluster seasons from the so-called Masters Of Horror even more depressing for a fan to bear. There is one instance of graphic violence so shocking and perfectly timed that I found myself—a committed, card-carrying gore hound—agreeing with the naysayer’s refrain that sometimes, less is more.

As with del Toro’s Spanish language companion pieces The Devil’s Backbone and the Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth and Erice’s iconic Spirit Of The Beehive, The Orphanage is foremost a drama rooted in the childhood fears of abandonment and parental betrayal, although in this instance, those traumas are explored from an adult’s point-of-view, which gives it a kinship to Nacho Cerda’s recent The Abandoned, which also featured a middle-aged mother tormented by her haunted lineage.

Childhood suffering and death is not an easy subject to tackle in any genre, and it’s one that can be easily exploited for cheap pathos to temper some showy directorial excesses. But for a genre constantly (and inaccurately) vilified for its portrayal of women, The Orphanage reminds that horror tales have long been showcases for strong and complex female characters. Rueda pretty much carries the entire film as Laura overcomes her emotional devastation and finds strength despite her doubts about her sanity. Rueda isn’t afraid to expose Laura’s less flattering qualities, but at no time, however, are we compelled to judge her—Rueda’s performance contains not a false note and is exhausting in its anguished range.

Likewise, Geraldine Chaplin makes a rare screen appearance in a memorable cameo as the medium Aurora. Shot entirely in spectral night vision, her attempt to contact the spirits in the home is the scariest sequence of its type since Poltergeist, and climaxes in one of the supreme “boo!” moments of the year (you’ve been warned…).

Bayona keeps his cast front and centre, with Oscar Faura’s fine widescreen compositions threatening terror in the margins.

Picturehouse won’t release The Orphanage in North American until this coming December, but it’s already slated for an English-language remake (which del Toro will reportedly produce for New Line). In better news, it’s just been announced as Spain's Official Submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the upcoming 80th Annual Academy Awards.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis