Monday, January 14, 2008

El Orfanato

In his follow-up to Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro proves once again that he is a master of imagination and visual wonder. The only catch? He didn't direct this time, just produced. He banked on newcomer Juan Antonio Bayona to helm the project, which proved to be wise. He captured the same visual scope of Pan's Labyrinth, but instead created a more traditional thriller. The Orphanage walks a thin line between a drama and a horror movie.

Belen Rueda plays Laura, a woman who grew up in an orphanage. As an adult she returned there with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simon (Roger Princep), to open a home for special needs children. Strange things start happening when Simon begins to make invisible friends- friends from Laura's past. Things get stranger when Simon goes missing, and Laura begins to believe what he was seeing. Giving in to this madness, however, may be the only way to find her son.

Sometimes it's difficult to analyze the performances in a foreign language film. You're focused on the subtitles so you don't get all the subtle nuances of the performers. The good movies (The Orphanage included) somehow manage to make you forget that you are reading, and you almost begin to understand what they are saying. Princep gives a fantastically creepy performance, and Rueda is powerful. Cayo's character, Carlos, however, is a little flat, resting on an upsetting indifference towards everything that's going on around him.

The movie is much scarier than Pan's Labyrinth, but a much easier scare as well. It relies on some stilted scare tactics (dark shapes moving in front of the camera, etc), and a motif of creaking sounds and children's voices. I found myself tense for the entire movie, sort of like a Spanish language The Shining. Normally I would appreciate this, but there was much more here than just a scary movie. There were some very emotional parts that were over-shadowed because I knew something scary was going to happen. Beneath all these thrilling moments there is the story of Laura's undying love Simon, her desire to find him at any cost, and her need to make peace with her past. These were powerful, but were buried because you can't focus on this when something is standing in the dark corners in every shot.

It's interesting to see the visual magnificence tied to the rather dark story-line. Everything is big and gray, making the characters themselves seem very small. Everything, the visuals and the sounds, contribute to making this a sad movie. Don't worry, it's not nearly as sad as the ending of Pan's Labyrinth, and except for one scene, not nearly as graphic either.


No comments: