El Orfanato/The Orphanage

Song of the Day: Reminiscing by Ailee


I was going through my very long list of movies that are still awaiting a review, and one caught my eye. The Orphanage, the 2007 film by J.A. Bayona. I remember leaving the cinema thoroughly entertained in a brilliantly, shudderingly, suspenseful manner.

Anyhow, I re-watched it this weekend for the purposes of this review, and maybe there is a correlation between age and fear: the older you get, the more susceptible to fear. Or maybe I am the exception here. It scared the living daylights out of me and I found myself screaming like a banshee in a house by myself. 

So let’s flashback to the beginning of my weird relationship with this Spanish film. I left the U.S. in December 2007 having briefly seen a poster on my way to the airport and a vocal desire by a friend to see it. I knew nothing but its name, which conjured up some kind of Être et Avoir  — possibly Nicola Philibert’s take on a rustic French orphanage, complete with sums, spelling and kindly bespectacled house masters, that it wasn’t that is beside the point now. I returned in January and finally managed to see a trailer, the message quite succinct: Guillermo del Toro’s The Orphanage was the horror movie of the year. One simply had to see it!

However, give me a moment to rant here – just a moment. Why in God’s name did they advertise it in the U.S. as: 1) a horror movie, and 2) Guillermo del Toro’s? It’s not a horror movie — The Orphanage builds its tension without any appreciable bloodshed, cursing or maniacal killer on the loose. Instead it is the story of a mother trying to find her son, an adopted boy with HIV before he dies. It’s also the story of unlocking secrets of the past when, in fact, only dead bodies can speak the truth. And finally it is NOT a del Toro movie: poor then newcomer Juan Antonio Bayona who was denied both the recognition and appreciation for this wonderful piece of art.

That said, The Orphanage uses tried-and-true horror conventions — an isolated cliff-side, worn rag dolls with porcelain heads, a soundtrack laden with screeching strings — to sound a deep chord about memory and how individuals negotiate forays into a painful past to be able to live with themselves in the present. With this, his debut film, Bayona establishes himself among a new generation of Spanish filmmakers that eschews the quirkiness of Pedro Almodóvar, whose aesthetic virtually Spanish-ness in films for two decades, in favour of the internationally-flavoured approach of Alejandro Amenábar, whose unsettling Tesis resurrected a moribund Spanish film scene in the mid-1990s (which he would follow with his own brand of appealing suspense flicks such Abre los ojos and The Others). The Orphanage is in this same better-than-just-scary tradition. Set in modern-day Spain, Bayona’s film speaks volumes about how a country imagines itself.

Laura — played with startling conviction by Belén Rueda, her face becoming more and more rutted by worry lines as the film progresses — moves her husband Carlos and their young adopted son, Simón, into the house in which she grew up as an orphan 30 years before; she is pluckingly determined to transform the dusty old mansion into a residence for handicapped children. Her selflessness stems in part from  Simón’s condition, as HIV-positive, a detail that adds one of the movie’s few outwardly modern touches.

After making a number of the same mistakes every horror movie heroine must commit: not cleaning the house’s closets when she moves in, allowing her son to wander into a cave unaccompanied, trying to unmask someone with a burlap sack over his head (I mean, really!)  — Simón goes missing, to be replaced by a cadre of youthful undead lost souls who egg Laura into playing protracted scavenger hunts in order to find her son. Not even gorgeous shots of northern Spain’s rocky coastline can combat the darkness that begins to overwhelm Laura, as understanding the link between her son’s disappearance and the unwelcome guests in her house becomes her singular obsession.

In the meantime, Carlos assumes the role of the sceptic to this supernatural mayhem, scoffing as a team of paranormal investigators sets up shop in the house to determine who these dead kids are and what they want. Bayona established a firm divide between the believers and the doubters in the story: Those who think digging up the past results in a better understanding of what’s going on in the present and those who would rather leave dead kids lie.

It is interesting to note that in 2007 when millions of Spanish moviegoers were riveted to The Orphanage, making it into the nation’s top-grossing film, the Spanish government was passing a Law of Historical Memory and families across the country were excavating mass graves from the Spanish Civil War in search of the remains of loved ones.  Whether Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sánchez were conscious of this connection to their country’s quest to grapple with the mysteries and oppression of its past is up for grabs, but the suggestion is nonetheless clear: In the climatic sequence, Laura re-creates the orphanage of her youth — making up the orphan’s beds and playing a round of Spanish kick-the-tin (‘Un, dos, tres — toca la pared’) with her son’s deceased playmates  — literally returning to the past with the aim of answering the questions that still plague her in the here and now. Like Spain itself, Laura’s foray back in time allows her to make startling discoveries that raise as many uncertainties as they answer, leaving the audience with a curiously macabre ‘happy’ ending.

Bayona may have been a newcomer then, but I can at least say that he joins the ranks of those who, for better or worse depending on which cinephile you ask, re-invigorate Spanish cinema. He successfully created a mystery/psychological thriller as was done by masters like Roman Polanski or Dario Argento, with character as its driving force. This is a movie about universal fears such as loneliness, death and even parenthood. It suggests that our own fears can drive us to tragedy. With flawless performances, cinematography, writing and direction; it works from first frame to last.

I fully recommend it. It is not a horror movie, but Bayona’s use of suspense-movie conventions will nevertheless succeed in freaking you out and you’ll find a film as thoughtful as it is spooky.

Till Next Post!





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