The Orphanage
Go Before You Read Too Much

El Orphanado (The Orphanage as it will marketed in the United States) is Spain’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming 80th Annual Academy Awards. As far as this reviewer is concerned, they have a runaway winner on their hands that could easily garner attention in several other categories as well.

Warning: I will do my best not to give away too much of the film because it should not be spoiled before being seen. Don’t allow anyone to tell you the plot or where the “surprises” come. You will not enjoy the movie if you know all the answers before you go.

Guillermo del Toro (producer, director, and writer of Pan’s Labyrinth) also produced El Orphanado and put his trust in two babes in the industry, Juan Antonio Bayona, who directed, and Sergio G. Sanchez, the screenwriter. The movie has had some comparison to The Haunting of Hill House, but El Orphanado is so sophisticated, intelligent, dazzlingly crafted, and deliciously frightening that I find the comparison completely ridiculous.

Belen Rueda as Laura in The Orphanage

Laura was orphaned as a child and sent to live at the Orphanage of the Good Shepherd somewhere on the coast of Spain. The other children in the orphanage are deformed or disabled in some way and are considered unadoptable and certain to live out their lives in the institution. Laura, however, is a healthy and very loving child who embraces these children as friends and parts of herself so that when she is selected for adoption she departs feeling as if she is leaving her family. As Laura grows up she feels compelled to establish the same kind of home—but a much better one—for other children who have handicaps like those of her childhood friends. With her physician husband, Carlos, and their own adopted son, Simon (who is HIV positive), Laura buys the old orphanage and remodels it with just this plan in mind. The house is subject to strange noises bumps and thumps, and Simon insists that he has made new friends although there are no other children around. During an open house for prospective tenants, Simon, who has decided he isn’t all that keen on sharing his home or his parents with others, disappears. The central tension of the movie and the poignant heartbreak of parents who have lost a child without knowing how or why or where begins.

From what I have been able to find out so far, Director Bayona has nothing else in the works for the big screen at this time. I will be watching, however, because I cannot believe that del Toro and others will not be seeking his talents for future projects, and I will want to see the results!

Juan Antonio Bayona has a masterful eye for shooting interiors and exteriors and he couldn’t have chosen more beautiful parts of Spain in which to craft this film. The stately old mansion chosen to be the orphanage is picture perfect, as are the grounds it sits upon. Whether it actually exists on the coastline or not, there is nothing to belie that it does not sit on the shoreward side of a beautiful high-cliffed spit of land that also houses a lighthouse that no longer works and becomes (along with the rocky coastline and crashing sea) a central metaphor for the story.

Bayona also frames his interior shots to show off the beautiful light and dark aspects of the house and uses closed doors and swelling music to create moments of gut-wrenching, adrenalin raising horror and terror that kept me busy trying to keep my hands from covering my eyes. Bayona contrasts the real world, which is sharp, distinct, clear, and colorful, with the world of heartbreak and spirits, which is drab, depressing, mist-enshrouded, and filled with movements just seen out of the corners of the eyes—not as much as M. Night Shyamalan does, though, and the effect does not become tiresome.

The cast of El Orphanado is fabulous, too, but the standout is Belen Rueda as Laura. The camera loves her and Bayona takes full advantage of every line on her face, evokes every honest emotion he can find in her, and successfully leads to a deliciously done but oh-so-heartbreaking climax that the viewer is transported into her world.

I refuse to acknowledge this movie as just another suspense/terror/horror film. The film’s intelligence is demonstrated in its themes—the major one of which is the bond between mother and child and the mystical connection that they have even when the child is not of the same biology. Another theme is the tenacity with which a mother will cling to hope when everyone else, even father, has given up and “accepted” that the child will never return or be found. The film also evokes thoughts of death and what happens after death and uses light and darkness not only for mood, but also as metaphors for fear and confusion juxtaposed against dawning wisdom and understanding.

Two last things: This is a foreign film, done in Spanish with English subtitles. I have seen many subtitled films where care is taken with every element except the sound quality of the spoken language and the display of the translation. El Orphanado even breaks that bad stereotype. The actors’ voices are rich and Belen’s voice is especially soothing. The Spanish sentences are long and luscious and natural, and the subtitles are directly translated, not simplified, dumbed-down, or chopped into shorter sentences.

Finally, there is plenty of jumpy stuff for the adrenaline junkie or horror flick aficionado. Bayona is a diabolical master of the exquisitely, almost physically painful (and definitely psychically excruciating) build-up of tension.

This movie was made because Sanchez wrote a great story and del Toro and Bayona had the smarts to get it told. They are all fine craftsmen, and sometimes that is the only reason needed.

The Orphanage is rated R for “disturbing content.” I definitely agree since there are still some images I cannot erase from my mind. This is not a film for any child under 17 or anyone who is not secure in his sense of being wanted and loved. As for adults, there are only a couple of truly shocking scenes and you will know them when you see them. However, I do not consider them worth avoiding the movie altogether.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Kathy attended a promotional screening of The Orphanage.