Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Orphanage

Otherwise known as, El Orfanato (yes, it's subtitled), "The Orphanage," centers on a Laura (Belén Rueda) and the children's home in which she spent time as a child. Thirty years have passed since Laura lived at the orphanage and she has returned with her physician husband, Carlos, and their son, Simon, to begin a new chapter in their lives. Laura and Carlos have purchased the old seaside estate, which closed shortly after her adoption, with the intent of restoring the long abandoned property and making it a safe haven and care facility for disabled children. As their restoration work commences, Simon's active imagination blossoms to the extent of creating new imaginary friends, he already had two, who keep him company and create puzzle-like games for him to play. However, as the reopening of the home approaches, the games created by Simon's imaginary friends become less playful and instead begin to resonate with a darker and more disturbing meaning. After certain events transpire during the opening day celebration, Laura becomes convinced that her family has fallen victim to some obscure malevolence that has long been lurking in and around the house. As the days pass, Carlos remains skeptical while Laura deteriorates but still refuses to give in to her ever mounting fears as she becomes almost fanatical in her desire to simply find some type of answer that can explain the transformation of her once happy childhood home.

You know, the past few weeks have been exceptionally good for movies, at least for me and what I've been to see, and The Orphanage ranks right up there with the best of them. I was absolutely stunned at how good this movie really is and, even now, I have divided emotions concerning it because, on one side, I feel devilishly pleased (like I'm in a secret club) that I've seen such a fantastic film that so many people will miss out on merely because they 'don't do' subtitles, and on the other side, I feel inclined to go out of my way to spread the word about this movie in the hopes that everyone who truly loves a good story and superb acting will be aware of it and hopefully have an opportunity to experience for themselves and believe me, it is an experience. The opening sequence establishes a quaint seaside residence for a very small group of children who, judging by the fun they are having, are as content and happy as they would be if they were all part of the same family as opposed to being orphans. It is during this sequence that the very young Laura is introduced who will become the focus of the film when she returns to the place of her childhood happiness, thirty years later. Rueda's portrayal of Laura is nothing short of extraordinary as she deftly displays the emotional intensity of someone whose sturdy fabric of reality is fast becoming something more akin to gossamer threads. However, the real genius of Rueda's performance is in her ability to make her character vacillate between crazy/desperate and sane/focused, to the point where even I began to question what I thought was going on and what was really going on. In the end, the character of Laura is a brilliant fulcrum for a story that is exactly what it appears to be, except not in the manner in which it appears.

I would like to mention that even though the rest of the cast's role aren't as central as Rueda's, they do provide the perfect foundations for the story and are more than adequately portrayed. Fernando Cayo as the supportive and concerned Carlos and Roger Princep as the playful and imaginative Simon are exceedingly believable in their realism while Montserrat Carulla is properly spooky and cryptic as the social worker Benigna. The standout of the supporting cast is easily Geraldine Chaplin of Doctor Zhivago fame (and Charlie's daughter) as the psychic Aurora, working with a team a parapsychologists, who uses an impeccable balance of science and supernatural to suggest simplistic solutions.

This is the first feature film to be directed by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona whose previous work has consisted primarily of music videos and noted short films, however, I was very anxious to see this movie based on the fact that it is executive produced by Oscar-Nominee Guillermo del Toro. For those not familiar with del Toro, his directing credits include Mimic, Blade 2, Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. Del Toro is definitely one of my favorite directors and, judging by this film, his exacting nature, development of characters and meticulousness for detail is going to be equally displayed by his production work. Because of his high standards and commitment to quality del Toro has become highly successful with potentially difficult and problematic movies that deal with the realms of the fantastic, making him a very in-demand director globally. As of this writing, del Toro is finishing post production work on Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is in talks with Peter Jackson and his production company to take up the directorial duties for The Hobbit and it's proposed sequel and I've even heard that his name has come up in the infinitely small number of directors being considered for the final Harry Potter film(s). Impressive.

It's been several days since I've seen this movie and I absolutely cannot wait until I get to see it again. Movies like this are few and far between; it's difficult to combine scary and suspenseful with thought provoking emotion and make no mistake, this movie has some serious fright going on. I've seen many more 'horror' movies than your average movie patron, but the image of the small child at the end of the hallway in the orphanage uniform wearing the homemade burlap mask with one eye and the tuft of hair sticking out of the top is not something that I will not soon be forgetting, and this isn't even a horror movie. On the flip side, I can't think of many (if any) suspenseful films that have had such a surprisingly emotional effect on me upon it's completion (I'm not going to translate that statement for you). The Orphanage is an amazing and beautiful piece of work and even though it's in a limited release, if the opportunity presents itself, do not miss this film and if you're not lucky enough to be in a area showing the movie, write yourself a reminder and attach it to your bathroom mirror so you'll remember to look for it on disc in a few months. Go ahead and do it now. Hurry up.

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