(2007) dir. Juan Antonio Bayona
viewed: 12/28/07 at Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA
Produced by Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is still fresh in my mind, The Orphanage, a Spanish thriller/ghost story film set in a former orphanage, I was thinking more of del Toro’s 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone, which also featured a haunted orphanage as its setting. But this film, the first feature by Juan Antonio Bayona is, beyond that basic comparison, wholly something different. In some ways it reckoned to me somewhat of The Others (2001) in that it is an almost more traditional, earnest ghost story.
The lovely Belén Rueda stars as the mother of an adoptive son, who had spent her early childhood in the orphanage, leaving it when she was adopted at age 7 or so. She and her husband intend to restore the orphanage and turn it into a home for them to care for other children with various special needs. Her son, unbeknownst to him, is HIV positive and needs special care himself.
Her son, who already has some imaginary friends, develops some new ones, so the parents think. Of course, knowing this is going to be about ghosts, we suspect what it takes his parents a while to grasp. The place is haunted, haunted by the ghosts of six children and a mystery of who they are and why they are there. The film takes on a bit of a Poltergeist (1982) turn when some mediums are brought in to help solve the growing mystery. That said, it’s nothing so over-the-top or special effects laden. It’s more a drama and as naturalistic as it can be.
Perhaps that is its inherent strength, it’s tendency toward realism. There isn’t a reliance on effects of phantasms or dripping blood to work the audience and the cheap thrills are few. The film stays with the mother, her story, her love of her son, and the house offers up its ghosts without a huge amount of explanation of exactly “what a ghost is”.
I came to think back about 10 years ago about the viability of ghosts as a continuing site of contemporary fear. Fear being that of the unknown or unknowable. And laced, really truly interlaced, with death, the ultimate of those unknowns and such an obvious locus for fear. For whether science can disprove specific incidents of the phantasmal, there could be so many theoretical possibilities for phenomena of the spectral. And whether ghosts can really harm the living or would want to, well, that is open territory.
All that said, it’s not that I have any real belief in ghosts, but I think it’s an interesting genre of narrative. It’s not always very well done in film. But The Orphanage is that particular uniqueness in itself, an earnest, traditional narrative about a haunting, about death and love. I wouldn’t say it’s a masterpiece, but it’s a very good film, in almost all of its aspects.