At The Picture Show
Hide and seek
Emotions, dreams and memories collide with gorgeous/disturbing synchronicity in 'The Orphanage'
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sanchez
Starring: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Roger
Príncep, Edgar Vivar and Geraldine Chaplin
Rated R / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
Fears and memories are personified in astonishing cinematic detail in Juan
Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage, an emotionally driven supernatural thriller
from Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. Though it bears the name of producer
Guillermo del Toro - no doubt to try to capitalize on the international success of
del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth - the film belongs wholly to Bayona and writer Sergio
G. Sanchez, examining their own concerns in their own distinctive style.
Nominated for 14 Goya Awards - Spain's
equivalent of the Academy Awards - The Orphanage takes a serious emotional
approach that plays disturbingly well with frightening imagery and events. It
doesn't try too hard to artificially heighten the stakes; instead, it is experienced
with a foreboding sense of mourning. It feels deeper than mere suspense, and
much deeper than mere scariness or disgust. Many American horror directors
would do well to take a few cues from a film like this.
From the film's opening frames, a sense of underlying dread is established. Even
when all we're seeing is kids playing an innocent game of hide-and-seek (a key
scene that portends a corresponding scene during the film's amazingly
choreographed climax), there is a fear in the air. That fear is shared by our heroine,
the anxiety-riddled Laura (Belén Rueda), who has returned to the orphanage at
which she briefly lived as a child in hopes of re-opening it as a home for sick or
It's an issue that is close to her heart, like the orphanage itself (even more than she
knows): She and her husband have adopted an HIV-positive child, Simón (Roger
Príncep), though they've kept him mercifully in the dark. Simón has enough
problems as it is; his parents have long been used to his imaginary friends, and are
unendingly patient with him.
It only becomes a problem when it turns Simón against his parents - that is, when,
after a game of hide-and-seek that turns increasingly agitating for Laura - he
reveals that he knows of his illness, and of his adoption.
His friends told him, you see.
Not so imaginary after all, eh?
Already things have gone sour for Laura. She's
been accosted by the creepy Ms. Benigna, who claims to be a social worker, and
finds the old woman rummaging around the building. What she wants, Laura
doesn't know - naturally, Benigna gives only cryptic answers about Simón's
And then one day Simón disappears in an unnerving sequence made all the more
disturbing by the fact that the children are all shrouded in anonymity: all the
children are wearing masks. There's no telling who is who - or even if everyone is
supposed to be there in the first place.
The Orphanage sets itself far apart from other ghost stories - and particularly
apart from other children-in-peril stories. The film doesn't use children to
manipulate our emotions any more than is necessary. On the contrary, we're far
more scared of the children than for the children. Stylistically, it is the children
who represent some of the film's most ominous and tragic figures; and it is Laura
whose well-being seems most in danger.
There is a virtuoso sequence after Simón's disappearance during which Laura and
her husband bring in a team of supernatural experts to examine the orphanage and
its secrets. Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) is the medium who takes it upon herself to
try to communicate with whatever figures have taken spiritual hold of the
orphanage - perhaps Simón, perhaps not.
Throughout the scene, as Aurora is moving
around the darkened orphanage, we connect the dots ourselves. Nothing jumps out
to scare us. Instead, the perceived danger - the horror that looms around her - is
created by us. Bayona sets a mood and lulls us into it; it is the horror of
anticipation and imagination that makes the scene so effective.
Needless to say, The Orphanage has many of its own secrets - secrets that get
revealed on their own time. Or rather, on Laura's time. As the film moves on, she
gradually becomes a more solitary figure - the one person clinging to the
possibility of uncovering Simón's fate and the fate of the orphanage. The film is
more than just a stellar exercise in style. We get wrapped up in Laura's emotional
crisis first and foremost; the horror elements exist to enhance it, to give it that
sense of urgency that it naturally deserves. And when all is said and done - unlike
films that rely on things jumping out of corners - the fear we felt actually sticks.
Read more by Chris Bellamy