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CLASSICS: The Orphanage (2007)

October 30, 2011


(originally written on August 22, 2008)….

written by: Sergio G. Sanchez
produced by: Mar Targarona, Joaquin Padro, Alvaro Agustin & Guillermo del Toro
directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
rating: R (for disturbing content)
runtime: 105 min.
U.S. release date: December 28, 2007 (limited)
DVD & Blu-ray release date: April 22, 2008

I’m a fan of “less is more” which can be applied to almost anything really and it also correlates well with the phrase “show don’t tell”. I prefer when art stands on its own without any additional interpretation. I don’t want anything accompanying the art that states the obvious, tells me what to feel or think, or bats me over the head with a message. I especially feel this way toward film. There really is so much more that can be told to the audience when the filmmakers just show through images and simply let the film hold the audience’s attention. That is certainly how I felt as I watched this amazingly beautiful film that had me reeling through an emotional gamut.
It’s no surprise to me that this suspenseful ghost story is a foreign film. I just don’t see American filmmakers making any original and intelligent suspense films. If they aren’t boring torture porn sequels then they’re American remakes of successful Japanese horror films. There’s an audience for all those films but to me there’s just nothing special there. Unlike, Juan Antonio Bayona’s debut film “El Orfanato” or “The Orphanage” which happens to be something very special. At the start of this film , there’s a feeling of the traditional haunted house/ghost story but by the end of the film you are left with such a heavy and full heart that you’re simply frozen.

It begins with a scene outside a large seaside orphanage with a group of young kids playing a game similar to “Red Light, Green Light”. A young girl named Laura is called from the game by one of the teachers there and is soon taken away by her new adoptive parents. Decades later, Laura, now a woman is back at the orphanage. She and her physician husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have bought the orphanage with plans to turn it into a home for disabled children, and they’ve moved in with their 7-year-old son Simón (Roger Princep). The boy immediately starts acting odd, talking about an imaginary friend named Tómas. At a party for the opening of the home, Simón mysteriously disappears amid prospective children, and Laura (Belén Rueda) immediately suspects a strange old woman who has been lurking around the house. 

Months later, with her boy still gone, Laura is still convinced he is still alive or that his spirit is haunting the creepy old house. I’ll stop right here….
To say much more about the general plot might give far too much away. It really is a beautiful film where the less you know the better off you are and since I am fond of the aforementioned motto, I will leave the plot details alone. Is it enough to persuade you to see it? I hope so, even if you aren’t a huge fan of the horror or suspense genre, this really will hit you in many surprising ways. There’s a lot of depth at play and many layers throughout to the story as well as the characters, which slowly unfold as we learn more about what happened with the orphanage after Laura was taken away as a child.
Great care is taken to meticulously construct a story that reveals itself in such an inventive, seductive fashion, it seems disrespectful to talk about it too much. You really need to see this at home with someone and experience it the same way I did, knowing very little. There are some real chills to be found in this film although not too many gross out moments and at first you may feel you know where it’s going. You may think there are some genre clichés thrown in and even if there are, they aren’t used in a typical manner. The shocks that come are really a result of your imagination that has been built up while watching the film. The creators know that if they can spark yours, you’ll completely buy into the world they are showing (not telling), and the more engrossed you become, the more you enjoy it.
As Laura, Belén Rueda gives an absolutely, stunning performance in a role that requires more than just acting scared or screaming, because it has to. The grief involved over her missing boy, the fear that she’ll never get him back, combined with the strength she calls upon to search for him could be considerably overwhelming for most actors, but Rueda (“The Sea Inside”) is simply amazing. This is the first movie I’ve seen her in and I plan on going back and finding others while I keep tabs on any of her upcoming projects. It’s refreshing to see a 43 year-old woman get a great role and run with it. 

With this being his first feature-film, director Bayona is also one to watch, as he clearly has a sharp eye for visuals, creating a mood, and intricately telling a story. I’m interested to see if he stays in the horror genre or explores other genres for his next film, cuz from this film, I feel he can succeed in any direction.
A good ghost story can inspire our imaginations, which is sadly the first thing that so many of us lose when we grow up. So, it makes sense that a story like this would reference the spirit of Peter Pan in its twisty narrative. Of course, there are also more dangerous lessons to be gleaned from Pan, particularly the danger of being stuck in one place, be it the eternal boy who can’t move on or the avenging Hook who won’t quit until he gets his revenge. Such themes are also applicable toward this Spanish (yeah, there’s subtitles….deal with it!) tale of a haunted home for children. 
Writer Sergio G. Sanchez conveys a similar feel to other fright fests that have come from Spain and Latin America in recent years, most notably Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others” and Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone”. del Toro serves as producer (chiefly one of the reasons this film received an audience), and it’s obvious that Bayona and Sanchez share the same love of storytelling that has made del Toro’s best films such a joy to watch. While there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight of Hollywood’s endless recycling and remakes, here is a film carefully revealing a genuine story. There is an art to spinning a scary tale and there are times when that art makes it to the screen, this is one of those films.
RATING: ****
Keeping It Reel CLASSICS is a feature that showcases movies that are deemed as simply, classics.  Old or new, they somehow resonate and stand out in our cinematic memory. We invite you to discover them yourselves, again or for the first time. Here are some others….
The Dark Knight (2008)                          
Once (2007)                                                                          
Rachel Getting Married (2008)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

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