Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Sep 29, 2007 5:40 am 
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Uneasy beginnings

Juan Antonio Bayona’s first film El Orfanato has the formidable sponsorship of Guillermo del Toro. He’s also found US distribution for it by Picturehouse, who handled his celebrated Pan’s Labyrinth. The latter shares certain elements with the screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez, another first-timer. It concerns a couple living in a former orphanage whose adopted seven-year-old tragically disappears, causing the mother to resort to mediums and séances and seek communion with the dead through reliving her own hidden past. Del Toro not only produced The Orphanage, he has chosen to personally promote the film. And since it is a premiere effort for much of the filmmaking team (except the actors), its polish is impressive; moreover the story is a sophisticated one. But both story and treatment wind up being little more than a high class horror movie—without the gore of the current crop, but with a lot of loud sound effects designed to jerk you out of your socks—not to mention the usual crumbling corpses, hideous masks, and doors suddenly shut behind innocent victims. One step forward for some young filmmakers in Spain; but another step backward—and no competition, needless to say, for Pan’s Labyrinth. This is another sign of FSLC and New York Film Festival director Richard Pena’s admirable support of Spanish language films, but it is not the brightest gem in the festival’s crown this year.

An opening flashback shows young Laura playing with five companions at an orphanage in a big old house thirty years ago, just before Laura is to be adopted. Flash forward, and a 37-year-old Laura (Belen Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) with seven-year-old son Simon have moved back into the very same old orphanage, unused now, preparing to renovate it to house a small number of mentally and physically handicapped children.

Simon (Roger Princep) seems uneasy in the new location. He doesn’t sleep well, and has dreamed up some imaginary friends. Various signs suggest he’s somehow connecting with Laura’s childhood. Once a scary fake “social worker” (Montserrat Carulla)—an old lady with thick glasses—works her way briefly into the house to give Laura a threatening interview, things turn permanently bad. Simon mysteriously is led to find out two things about himself Laura and Carlos weren’t going to tell him till later: he’s adopted, and he’s HIV-positive. During an initial reception for the new home, Simon refuses to come downstairs, and shortly later he disappears. This reception sequence seemed to me the most creepy and memorable of the film, its use of handicapped children in scary masks eerily reminiscent of the photographs of Diane Arbus.

Laura carries out a desperate and hopeless search for the missing boy. After six months she arranges through a specialist in parapsychology to have a medium, Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) come to the house with a team of observers. The result of this episode, which involves night-vision imaging, TV monitors, and other tech devices, is that Aurora thinks Simon is somehow connected now with the orphans who lived in the building thirty years ago—Laura’s contemporaries and pals. Actually, we knew that; the elaborate business is absorbing, and Chaplin delivers a stark, haunting turn, but it adds nothing new and from here on in some sense the screenplay gets tangled in its own complications.

Earlier discussions with Simon about Peter Pan (he announces he’s never going to grow up) introduced themes of regression and eternal childhood. They flow in and out of the film hereafter. Carlos is of the opinion that the former orphanage has bad vibes and they need to leave, or at least take a break from being there. But Laura refuses to go, so Carlos leaves her by herself. Thereafter things get very complicated and the screen belongs to Rueda, whose emotional intensity and sensitive face carry us through a series of sequences involving reenactments of childhood games and other physical experiments by Laura to communicate with her pals from the past and find out what happened to Simon. The film flows in and out of reality and sanity and, frankly, lost me at some point here, so that whether the ending is satisfying or not isn’t something I’m prepared to say.

Thematically this is an interesting screenplay, but the use of very conventional, if slick, horror film shock devices would tend to alienate the fan of straightforward drama. Pan’s Labyrinth, with its richer canvas and constant shifts back and forth from a child’s fantasy (or supernatural) world to a grim present political reality provide a far more satisfying and complex experience. Excellent performance by Belen (who previously co-starred in The Sea Inside), and a promising debut for Bayona, Sanchez, and their team. The sound design is effective, but over-the-top.

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