As I was leaving the theater after watching Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orpahange,
" I realized - as I brushed away a few stray tears from my eyes - that I had seen one of my favorite films of 2007.
Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth
" was, in my opinion, the best film of 2006. "The Orphanage," produced by Del Toro, isn't the flawless work of genius that Pan's
was, but it's a rich, chilling horror-fable that renews my hope in the medium.
When the credits had rolled, and the lights lifted lazily from the rafters of the theater, I didn't want to leave that world. I was still completely submerged in its dark, romantic ambiance, and wished to stay there a little while longer.
As the title suggests, the film is about an old orphanage, where a mother, Laura (the wonderful Belén Rueda), spent her childhood and which she and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), now intend to use as a home for children with special needs.
Meanwhile, their little boy Simón (Roger Príncep) is lonely and spends every waking minute with his two imaginary friends, Watson and Pepe. One day, Laura and Simón go for a walk down by the sea where Simón wanders off to explore the depths of a cave. When she finds Simón whispering in the dark, he appears to have made a new imaginary friend, one who he intends to invite home.
The boy leaves a trail of seashells back to the orphanage in hopes that his new friend will come and play. During a welcoming party for the children who will be living at the orphanage, it seems Simón's new friend decides to join in on all of the fun. As all the children run around wearing playful animal masks, a strange boy wearing a burlap sack over his head stares at Laura and leaves her feeling uneasy.
Shortly thereafter, Simón disappears. Laura and Carlos are thrown into a maelstrom of despair as they try to cope with the loss of their son. The desperation in Laura comes to a head as she begins to believe that perhaps a force within the house could have taken her son.
J.A. Bayona has delivered something of a masterpiece with his debut feature-length film. The camera moves in such a way that you anticipate the horror that lies beyond the edge of the frame. At one point we are treated to a silent 16mm reel of film in which we see the dank, dark confines of what appears to be a horribly disfigured boy's room. As he sits at a desk drawing, the hand-held camera positioned behind him moves slowly, uneasily even, as it creeps forward. The suspension is so great I feel a clinch in my chest, my mouth goes dry and spreads to the back of my throat - I lose the ability to gulp.
As Spain's official submission to the ‘Best Foreign Language Film' category of this year's Academy Awards, "The Orphanage
" is destined to turn some heads. It's a beautiful Spanish ghost story that not only chills, but also stirs something within - a kind of poignancy I have seldom experienced in a horror film.
Though it is the atmosphere of Del Toro's glossy, horrific "The Devil's Backbone,
" that gives "The Orphanage
" its foundation - a wonderful screenplay by the talented Sergio G. Sánchez and an amazing cast led by Belén Rueda make this film stand out, giving it a life of its own. "The Orphanage"
is truly a masterful work of cinema.
I find myself even now as I write this, a day after the viewing, searching for a way back to that romantically dreadful atmosphere - filled with creaking stairways and hidden rooms. It makes me think of my own childhood, and how easy it was to believe in the fantastic. "The Orphange
" has captured that magic and mystery of living in the wonderful world of make-believe.