Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2008

Hide and seek

Emotions, dreams and memories collide with gorgeous/disturbing synchronicity in 'The Orphanage'

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 diseased children.

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 situation.

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

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