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The Orphanage Reviews

The Orphanage

Extremely tense, classical thriller

Posted : 3 years, 2 months ago on 7 February 2011 08:53

"Sometimes seeing is not believing, it's the other way round..."

The Orphanage (a.k.a. El Orfanato) possesses a similar look and feel to other thrillers which originated from Latin American and Spain during the noughties, most noticeably Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone and Alejandro Amenabar's The Others. Going above and beyond the cheap, empty-headed trappings which plague mainstream supernatural horror films (such as 2007's The Messengers), The Orphanage is first and foremost a weighty, existential and shocking study of the frailty of life and the mysteries of death. Guillermo del Toro also served as a producer on this film, so it's therefore no surprise that it has been imbued with the same love of storytelling which makes del Toro's work so brilliant. See, unlike Hollywood's endless recycling of mindless slashers and remakes of Asian pictures, The Orphanage has an honest-to-goodness narrative. There is an art to spinning an effective scary yarn, and the makers of The Orphanage nailed this requirement.

The story begins with a scene set at an orphanage where a group of young children are playing a game. Little do the kids realise that the time has come for one of them, Laura, to leave and start life with a new family. Fast-forward thirty years or so, and Laura (Rueda) is a grown women with a husband named Carlos (Cayo) and an adopted son named Simón (Príncep). The story starts proper when Laura and her family move into the abandoned orphanage where she used to live. Their goal is to open a spacious, loving home for children with special needs; something near and dear to their hearts since they themselves are struggling to come to terms with Simón's own illness (he's HIV-positive). Soon, Simón starts making imaginary friends. However, when Simón suddenly disappears without a trace and Laura starts hearing mysterious noises within the house, Laura begins to consider that Simón's imaginary friends might not have been a figment of his imagination after all.

While the pacing is at times a tad clumsy, the resolution to the film is close to perfection - it represents a winning combination of hope and tragedy. The overall narrative is dense, and writer Sergio G. Sánchez managed to weave together a number of plot threads which combine at the end. With that said, though, the final scene is entirely unnecessary - the film should have ended on a bittersweet note and allowed room open for interpretation. Instead, the final scene leaves no room for debate and pushes the film into the realm of sweetness. Additionally, The Orphanage is at times distanced and vapid when it's clearly screaming to lunge out at the viewer. These moments are conceptually sound, but are lost in a picture in need of more concentration. This is perhaps a reflection of first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona's inexperience with feature films. On a more positive note, though, the film was hauntingly shot by cinematographer Óscar Faura.

As a ghost story, The Orphanage is similar in terms of plot to such films as Dark Water and Silent Hill. The difference, however, is the execution - The Orphanage is a more classical, tense thriller which instils a sense of asphyxiating apprehension. The picture is usually more unsettling than genuinely frightening, and gore is minimal. The scares are often of the nature of strange noises behind walls, odd apparitions appearing in the distance, and shocking images. It may seem accurate to label The Orphanage as a horror film, but it's almost unfair - there's almost nothing to connect it to the popular, "in-your-face" horror films which dominate the genre. There are no dazzling pyrotechnics or instances of impressive CGI on display here either since the movie relies on escalating tension, mystery, and the possibility of supernatural forces. Plus, the frights exist in the service of the story, not the other way around. The Orphanage is definitely a horror film that Alfred Hitchcock would've been proud of.

The Orphanage admittedly exercises more than a few horror film conventions, including parental separation from their kids, physical manifestations of emotional traumas, and otherworldly spirits. Fortunately, the story never seems to be rehashing the same old tired details in a stale fashion, even if they sometimes serve the immediate purpose of a scare or a shocking sequence. With that said, though, the hackneyed ideas usually seem fresh because they were wonderfully re-imagined by director Bayona - even the customary "don't go into the basement/dark place" moments are rendered compelling because they were treated with commendable sincerity and style. Part of the reason for this success is Sánchez's expert writing. Sánchez provided real motivation and clear logic for the actions of the characters, and the few jumps in the movie feel well-earned rather than purely exploitative.

The acting anchor of the film is Spanish television actress Belén Rueda, who received her first international exposure here. As Laura, she is amazing; fearlessly committing to the performance (she reportedly shed 10 pounds during filming) and carrying the entire film on her tense shoulders. She's mesmerising in virtually every scene; never playing the emotions too broadly, and drawing us in so we can see things from her perspective. All the American starlets who have sleepwalked through recent thrillers should hang their heads in shame. Alongside her, as Simón, young Roger Príncep is remarkable. Neither cloying nor artificially bratty, he is a believable child, and, when he exits the film, a viewer will feel Laura's loss and actively yearn to uncover what has happened to him. Also memorable is Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie Chaplin) who steals her screen-time in the role of a colourful medium called upon to investigate the supernatural presence which Laura insists is in her home. Rounding out the main players is Fernando Cayo as Laura's husband Carlos. Cayo's performance is natural and believable.

The Orphanage earned several nominations and awards at festivals, and a great deal of notoriety precedes it. While it's not quite as superlative as all of this might suggest, it's a solid horror movie. For those who enjoy good ghost stories and are willing to be patient with a film that gradually unveils its secrets rather than uncovering them in an orgy of gore, 2007's The Orphanage fills a need. Predictably, talks began soon after its release of an English-language remake; the kind of pillaging that should be outlawed by now. Do not wait for the version without subtitles, as this is the real deal, and boy is it a humdinger.


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El orfanato

Posted : 5 years, 9 months ago on 19 July 2008 04:05

Ótimo filme de suspense de grande produção inicio ao fim o filme cumpre o gênero que promete. Qualidade e técnica surpreendente...

"crer para ver e não ver para crer"

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There are still great horror films

Posted : 6 years ago on 22 April 2008 02:35

From the thematic point of view, it's perfectly natural that in a determined point in The Orphanage (El Orfanato), the classic Peter Pan is mentioned: since the film's own story is about kids who will never grow up, it becomes some kind of ghostly version of Peter Pan and it also fits on another genre that has films like The Innocents, The Others and The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo).

With his first work in a feature film, screenwriter Sérgio G. Sánchez, the film is about Laura (Belén Rudea), a woman of thirty something years old who decides to buy the mansion in which was the orphanage she lived in as a child. Moving there with her husband and her son, Simón (Roger Princep), she's a woman quite determined to build there a house for children with special needs, something that reflects Simón's own condition, who's adopted and carries the HIV virus. Little by little, though, the kid begins showing an strange proximity towards his "invisible friend", and when a particular freak accident takes place, Laura becomes obsessed in the hidden mysteries of the house.

In a superficial analysis, The Orphanage doesn't bring any big innovations (obviously): it's the old formula of the haunted mansion and that also has the child who's the first one to make contact with the "other world", the spirits with an apparent desire for revenge and so on. What makes this film so effective, is the emotional investiment it does on its characters, since during a big part of the film is dedicated to the psychological development of the main character, making her drama so real, palpable for the espectator, who, then, doesn't simply begin fearing for her safety but also is touched with her suffering.

And in the same way, unlike so many films of the same genre, who deal with their children as small adults (even good films like The Ring and The Sixth Sense), here Simón is an absolutely normal boy, who, in the morning he asks to his mother if "he can wake up", worries if Santa Claus exists or not and shows a touching dependece towards the cares of his mother. What makes the film even stronger, as we are now fearing even more with what might happen with the kid. Besides, the intense performance given by Belén Rudea, makes Laura a dedicated mother, but who also fails, and, because of that, tortured by remorse. It all helps to give the proper weight to the narrative.

Appearing as a promising talent in his first film, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona joins the group already formed by Mexican Guillermo del Toro and Chilean Alejandro Amenábar in a group of latin filmmakers with a particular talent for the macabre. Showing he knows exactly what he's doing and exactly what he wants, Bayona starts The Orphanage in a more than proper idilic way, showing a sunny day in a green backyard, while a few kids play around with nothing to worry about, only the odd music playing in a very subtle way shows us that something is not quite right in that scenary. Using that, the director establishes the perfect dynamic with the audience: even in the moments that are apparently harmless, we antecipate the tension to come, and in the process of antecipating, we keep this feeling present during all through the film, in a game that crushes our nerves into tiny bits.

Though, the most admirable is the very secure way that Bayona alters suspense and shock: when in a costume party with lots of people wearing masks creates a sensation of disturbance in the audience and when another incident that happens further on schocks in the very brutal way it is suddenly shown. Once again, the director shows perfectly conscious of when he can (and must) replace the subtelty of insinuations by images much more graphic and disturbing. And more: enriched by the brilliant sound design done by Oriel Tarragó (awared with the Goya), The Orphanage terrorizes thankfully also to the creeks, whispers and other sounds that seems to evolve us and that reveal to be absolutely fundamental also in one of the most anguishing sequences: the brilliant appearence by Geraldine Chaplin (how many languages can she speak??), who takes us into a mediunic voyage through the mansion, helped by a surgically precise editing who intercalates infra-red plans, shots of the blueprints of the house and suffocating close-ups on the actors. This sequence only matches up with another one, further on the film, when the director makes many panoramics when Laura plays a game that seems to attract the attention of the ghosts in the house little by little.

The Orphanage has only one flaw, it becomes way too long on one last scene (I won't give it away) trying excessively to tie up all lose ends, it ends up diminishing the all impact that came before. Still, this is an undeniebly tragic story, impactating and dark, that takes the espactator outside the theater with an unpleasant feeling that remains intense for a long time. And believe me, this is a huge complement.

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