Last weekend I saw El Orfanto (The Orphanage) directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. The Orphanage is a story of grief, remorse and maternal longing, cloaked in the ghostly garb of a classic chiller – creepy atmosphere, flawed characters and a nebulous wave of growing sadness.
This movie works well as a horror film, though subtle in the way it delivers its scares and all the more disturbing for it. It is also a ghost story with hauntings on both a supernatural and a psychological level. There are many archetypal symbols – missing doorknobs, keys to unknown locks, the banished child, abandoned dolls, lost (as in unmothered) children.
The plot focuses on a young woman haunted by shadows of her past. Laura (Belén Reuda) returns to the seaside orphanage of her youth, aiming to open a home for sick children. Her first charge is her adopted son Simón, a sweet little boy who has yet to be informed of his HIV infection. But Simón has issues stretching beyond his illness, namely a tendency to play with imaginary friends who may or may not be there.
As the story unfolds, we learn of a very real and tragic occurrence at the orphanage shortly after Laura had left to be adopted. I found this especially poignant because in the British media over the past couple of months, there has been yet another heartbreaking story about a former Jersey children’s home in that is being investigated over allegations of decades of child abuse.
In the film’s latter half, Bayona toys with the idea that everything could be taking place within Laura’s fractured mind and perhaps it is her soul that is haunted. In an interview with producer Guillermo del Toro, he addresses a key difference between American and European horror films.
“I do think that its very symptomatic that American horror seems to be more concerned with the destruction of the body (torture and extreme violence), whereas European horror is traditionally more concerned with the destruction of the soul. There are monsters that emanate not from the fear of being eaten, but from losing who you are, your existence. That big concern is more rooted in European film and the literary horror tradition’.
Del Toro had directed El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labryinth) 2006, an excellent Spanish fantasy film and El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) both set in Spain during the authoritarian rule of Francisco Franco. He was drawn to producing J.A. Bayona’s first full-length film The Orphanage on the merit of Bayona’s short films and wanted to give the fledgling director his support. Which I think is really cool. I love hearing about established artists encouraging and helping out new and emerging artists.
I can see del Toros’ influence in The Orphanage, but it is a very good directorial debut from Bayona.
I’m a member of the Exeter Picturehouse, an arthouse cinema. One of the perks is free, exclusive preview screenings and I was able to see this film a few weeks before its general release in the UK.