2007 // Spain - Mexico // Juan Antonio Bayona // January 17, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - It's tempting to compare The Orphanage and Pan's Labyrinth, and not just because both are recent Spanish-language fantasy-horror films that delve into childhood fears. Both films employ a similar tactic for their scares—gnawing dread punctuated by the odd moment of gruesome gore—and both wear the ambiguity of their central mystery as a badge of honor. What's more, The Orphanage's promotional material is aggressively touting Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro's producer credit. Yet these similarities strike me as only skin-deep. The Orphanage's protagonist is an adult, and director Juan Antonio Bayona is less interested in the perspectives of children than in his heroine's understanding of and relationship to them. In some ways, The Orphanage is the mirror image of Labyrinth. Where del Toro's film examined the ways that children cope with and defeat real horror through fantasy, Bayona addresses how hope and fantasy—or delusion, if your prefer—govern a parent's understanding of and attitude towards their child.
Laura, a surname-less Spanish woman, has returned to the old orphanage where she spent part of her childhood. She has purchased the cavernous, gothic building with the intention of transforming it into a home for disabled children. Laura and husband Carlos have an adopted son of their own, Simón, an aggressively adorable tyke who plays with imaginary friends, unaware of a lethal disease that looms over his future. As Laura prepares an open house celebration for the new charity, Simón's fantasies become more elaborate and disturbing. He speaks at length to an unseen person in a nearby sea cave, and drops a trail of sea shells to lead his "friend" back to the house. He tells his mother about six new friends he has made since their arrival at the old orphanage, one with a burlap sack mask. Simón—or was it his little friends?—sets up an elaborate treasure hunt game for Laura, with the apparent intention of voicing suspicions about his parentage and health.
There are other strange occurrences. An elderly woman shows up, claiming to be a social worker, asking questions about Simón and about Laura's intentions for the old orphanage. Later, Laura catches this strange visitor sneaking around on the grounds in the middle of the night. Then, on the day of the open house, something very, very bad happens. It's challenging to discuss The Orphanage—and these crucial scenes in particular—without tainting the perspective of future viewers, and thereby detracting from the experience of the film's terrors. Although The Orphanage contains many mysteries, what precisely happened on the day in question is the film's fulcrum.
Laura is one of the more absorbing and convoluted horror protagonists in some time. There seems to be something in her maternal nature that draws her to children most in need of physical care and emotional sustenance. This may be a legacy of her time at the orphanage, where many of her friends were disabled in some way. Yet Laura displays flashes of arrogance and neuroticism in her role as a caregiver. We begin to wonder: Is the new children's home an attempt to compensate for her own perceived failings in her relationship with Simón? Ghosts and goblins aside, director Bayona is focused on the story of Laura's actions and reactions to the tragedy that unfolds in the wake of the open house. He seems especially interested in whether Laura's missteps are the result of inherent character defects or merely bad luck, although he is less concerned with providing us with a definitive answer.
The Orphanage is the sort of film that rewards viewers who pay close attention from the very first shot. It's a fine example of how dialogue can be employed to trace over the lines of a film for emphasis and cohesion, without engaging in clumsy foreshadowing. The film establishes its supernatural rules by means of its characters' words, and it sticks to those rules. This isn't to say that The Orphanage doesn't engage in some misdirection. There are plenty of red herrings, and the three—yes, three—secrets that the orphanage holds are woven together so tightly that it can be difficult to perceive where one ends and the other begins. I still have mixed feelings about some of the film's trickery. Its employment of horror movie cliché to fool the viewer seems cheap from a certain perspective, but ingenious from another. Bayona seems to be aiming for ambiguity in select scenes, which elicits a disorienting but intriguing sensation.
Most of The Orphanage's problems lie in its script. I had some nagging concerns about the plot as I left the theater, and I was apparently not alone. Discussion forums are aflame with debate over the apparent gaping holes in the story. I think Bayona's elusive treatment of some of the film's moments is forgivable, even innovative. Less defensible are the perplexing questions and outright improbabilities that start to stack up in Sergio G. Sánchez's script, particularly with respect to the film's backstory. In general, Bayona does his best to paper over these difficulties. It's a credit to Bayona's engrossing treatment that The Orphanage provoked in me a desire for a second viewing rather than exasperation. Where the filmmakers rely on ghost story tropes, it's usually to The Orphanage's benefit. When Laura invites a group of paranormal investigators to the old orphanage, Sánchez and Bayona don't waste our time with tedious exposition. They trust that we've seen Poltergeist, and that we already know what these people are here to do. Rather than layering on pseudo-scientific gobbledygook in an attempt to establish credibility, they concentrate on eliciting nerve-rattling tension in the séance scene that unfolds.
Most of the performances in The Orphanage serve the film's tone well enough, but there are few that are memorable. Belén Rueda essentially carries the film as Laura, and she has a way of evoking the character's conflicting impulses and erratic responses that keeps her believable. Rueda actually manages to make the character's descent a touch understated, and as a result lends her the air of Greek tragedy. Rueda also pulls off one of the best primal screams of anguish and horror I've ever seen in the genre, so for that alone she gets bonus points.
The Orphanage is Juan Bayona's first feature film, and it's both an impressive debut and a commendable entry in a genre that has lately grown anemic and odious. The film takes some gambles with horror conventions, and the result is a tense, gloomy, mature take on the traditional ghost story. There are some troublesome holes in the plot, but Bayona's direction manages to hold the package together by getting the vital components exactly right. The Orphanage is menacing, gripping, and has ambition beyond cheap thrills.