The Orphanage (El Orfanato)
Director : Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenplay : Sergio G. Sánchez
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Belén Rueda (Laura), Fernando Cayo (Carlos), Roger Príncep (Simón), Mabel Rivera (Pilar), Montserrat Carulla (Benigna), Andrés Gertrúdix (Enrique), Edgar Vivar (Balaban), Óscar Casas (Tomás), Mireia Renau (Laura Girl)
Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage (El Orfanato) begins with a curious image: a shot of a cloudy sky in which the sunlight is still burning through, but just barely, which creates an evocative portrait of the struggle between light and dark. It also projects a premonition of things to come as the camera tilts down to a group of young children playing a game that seems slightly sinister at first, with one little girl counting over and over while another group sneaks up on her. The game turns out to be truly innocent fun, and the sounds of nature are heightened as they run about the yard, giving the sequence an idyllic sensation that is, in true horror fashion, cut short with a foreboding “Got you!” and a shock cut to the opening credits, whose visual device of ripping away sheets of wallpaper foreshadows the story's emphasis on buried past events, hidden rooms, and haunting secrets.
None of this is original, of course, and you can feel the pulse of so many European art-horror films beating just beneath of the surface that it would be almost too easy to dismiss The Orphanage as simply derivative. Yes, the elegant-moody tone and visuals are strikingly similar to recent films like Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001) and executive producer Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2003); yes, some of the film's more surrealistic touches are right out of the Mario Bava/Dario Argento playbook, as is the mixing of mystery-thriller elements with traditional haunted-house horrors. Those in the horror know could go on down the line, citing inspiration after inspiration (or robbery victim after robbery victim, depending on the perspective). Yet, Bayona has such a firm command of these elements that it's difficult to begrudge his using them.
The opening sequence takes place at the orphanage of the title--a large, Victorian stone mansion that seems completely isolated and untouched since the turn of the century; except for a few brief scenes, the rest of the world does not seem to exist. One of the little girls, Laura, is adopted, and 30 years later she returns (now played by Belén Rueda) and buys the building with Carlos (Fernando Cayo), her physician husband, with plans of turning it into a home for children with special needs. Her own adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), is HIV-positive and must take life-saving drugs each day. Early on the film suggests that Simón is in touch with something outside the material world; he has two invisible friends that his father is sure he will soon grow out of, and while he and Laura are exploring a seaside cave near the orphanage he seems to meet a third, a young boy named Tomás whom he invites back with them.
A few days later, when Laura and Carlos are hosting a party to welcome the children who will be living with them, Laura has a strange encounter with a child whose face is covered by a burlap bag with a twisted face painted on it (the evocation is that of a scarecrow). At the same time, Simón inexplicably disappears. Laura suspects that an elderly woman named Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) who came to the house earlier posing as a social worker might have something to do with it, but as the days turn to weeks and then months, most begin to suspect that Simón is dead, if only because he couldn't survive without drug intervention for his medical condition. Laura refuses to believe accept this, and her investigation leads her into a series of discoveries about the orphanage, the children who lived there, and her own past. One of the film's central devices is a scavenger hunt in which first Simón and then Laura follow a trail of household objects to the revelation of a horrible secret, which underscores the film's evocative mixing of the ordinary and the supernatural.
Granted, The Orphanage seems to be taking place in a world of its own, and if the film has one serious flaw, it is that it does not engage as fully as it could with material existence. The best horror films, whether they be fully fantastical or just extraordinarily macabre, always have their hooks dug deep into some kind of reality, otherwise they can be too easily brushed off as products of the imagination. The films from which The Orphanage borrows the heaviest were all connected to history, whether it be World War II in The Others or the Spanish civil war in Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Isolation is clearly part of the subtext in The Orphanage--the suggestion that awful things can happen when no one is looking and those who are already forgotten can never be missed--but at times it creates a world that is a little too hermetically sealed.
Nevertheless, Bayona proves to be an effective stylist with a good feel for tone and pacing. His camera movements and widescreen framing are elegant and often subtle, clearly designed to draw you in before springing the horror (whenever we see the orphanage from the outside, the camera is always slowly circling, as if wary of getting too close, or else it's framed against one of those old, squeaky merry-go-rounds that always seems to be moving on its own). Bayona recognizes just how unnerving a solitary figure can be and how effective it is to have something just slightly out of place. He can't resist a few good jolts, as well, and one character's death comes with such unexpected force and velocity that it keeps your nerves rattled for several scenes. In retrospect most of the film's stylistic accomplishments are clearly drawn from other, arguably better sources, but they work so well in drawing you into the story that you scarcely notice. If The Orphanage lacks some of the socio-historical resonance of the best European horror and fantasy films of the past few years, it still delivers an often chilling story that never sags and ultimately supplies a surprisingly moving ending that marries life and death, past and present.
Copyright © 2008 James Kendrick
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