PSA: The Orphanage (2007), or The Terror Of Not Knowing

19 09 2009

There is something slightly alarming about the knowledge we do not possess. It’s a primal fear we inherently have based on the basic human principle that if we don’t understand something, then we don’t know whether it has the capacity to harm us. It’s an idea that has shaped our perception of the world, and no matter where or when we were born, who we are in the social stratum, or what we do in our lives, it is a human constant to fear the unknown, the shadow in the corner of human cognizance. Today’s feature, The Orphanage, pits the fear of our own ignorance with an equally alarming situation, the loss of a child. It is a mind-bending supernatural horror film that poses the main character in such a heart-breaking position that by the end of the film I felt mentally drained from thinking about it so much.

In modern-day Spain, Laura is going back home, so to speak. She was an orphaned as a little girl, and now that she has grown into a happy and successful woman with a wonderful husband and a sweet little boy named Simòn, she decides that it’ll be a good gesture to fix up the now-dilapidated orphanage and get it in working order again as a facility for handicapped children. The whole family moves there to help her with this venture, but things are not all what they seem. Simòn begins to converse an imaginary friend named Tomás, a boy he draws as wearing a crude mask made out of a small sack. Simòn begins to act coldly towards her after he starts talking to Tomás, and their relationship becomes strained. This hurts Laura, and her distress is compounded when a woman named Benigna comes to the orphanage with some startling facts about Simòn’s past. It all comes to a head at Simòn’s birthday party, where the two argue and Simòn runs away from her. They can’t find him anywhere. He’s not in the house, he’s not outside, he’s just gone. After an exhaustive search that leads Laura to a serious injury, questions abound about Simòn’s whereabouts. Was he abducted? The strange Benigna seems a likely suspect. Is he just hiding from his mother? Simòn could have hidden anywhere on the expansive plot of land. Or is there something more supernatural at work here? The imaginary friend Tomás might have more to do with it than anyone knows. These are the things that go through Laura’s mind as she searches for her missing son. And as the trail goes colder, she becomes more and more desperate, until the question she is asking might be more painful if it is answered. What will become of our heroine and her lost young boy?

What an exhausting movie! This one will wear you out emotionally. Nobody likes the idea of a missing child, so seeing this film will definitely get your heart racing from start to finish. The Orphanage is a very mature horror in the sense that it doesn’t sink to the lower echelons of the industry (i.e. BOO! scares) to deliver an effective scare. Its terror lies both in the otherworldly happenings of the orphanage itself and in the desperation of Laura’s heart. There is no serial killer, no monsters, no over-wrought American concept of danger and fear, but a more intimate portrait of worry and regret that manifests itself in haunting, frightening ways.

The actors are great, although most of the film rests on the shoulders of Belen Rueda, who plays distraught mother Laura. She is a wonder, a fantastic picture of femininity, perfect in her imperfections. Rueda gets so much out of a character that could have easily been misconstrued, by hitting all her notes just right. The character of Laura is not as simple as we see from the beginning, and watching her relive that character’s past is unforgettable. Of course, her partner in all this is Carlos, played by Fernando Cayo, and he is also very, very good. He is the foundation, the support structure for Laura’s whole world. They have a wonderful on-screen relationship that is highlighted by its brevity. The few scenes at the beginning that feature them together are made precious and poignant after the strain sets in as it would on any relationship when a child goes missing.

I cannot believe this is director Juan Antonio Bayona’s feature debut. A movie so dense, frightening, and moving should have come from somebody much older. Most people think this is Guillermo Del Toro’s film, seeing as his name is taped ALL over the trailers, but he is only producing. Not to say his influence isn’t felt in the trappings of this uniquely Spanish film, with the ghosts and the orphans and the spookiness around it. It actually feels like more of a spiritual successor to The Devil’s Backbone than Pan’s Labyrinth did, and they’re supposed to be parts of a planned Spanish Civil War trilogy! But Bayona makes it his own, with a lot more focus on mood and suspense instead of the ghosts themselves. He actually is very sparing with his moments of genuine terror, but when you see them, you will be very impressed (the first appearance of Tomás is something you have to experience for yourself). I can’t wait to see more from this amazing new international talent in the future.

As I said, The Orphanage is a very mature film, not for fans of horror who are looking solely for the jump-cuts and excessive amounts of corn-syrup blood. There’s heart, there’s emotion, there’s a lot of eerie moments, and you would be hard-pressed to find an American movie like it right now. Which is convenient, because the US has decided to remake this film (TYPICAL!). But before that piece of New Line assembly line fodder comes out, take a gander at this amazing film from glorious España. You’ll be amazed at the quality throughout this film, and if you’re not shocked by the ending, you have no pulse. I give The Orphanage 9 crude sack masks out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I’ll be seeing something in theaters, but im so indecisive! Any thoughts, anyone? Let me know!




One response

2 10 2009
Jenni David

I’m so mad I hadnt found this entry sooner!! Fantastic review!! When they were playing that game, “uno, dose, tres…” my butt was so puckered I didnt know what to do with myself!! I wonder what actress new line will find to do as great a job as our current Laura…

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