The Orphanage (2007): Peter Pan Darkly

The Orphanage (2007 film)
The Orphanage (2007 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you do when you want to watch the latest Guillermo del Toro film and there’s nothing new to watch?  Do the next best thing and watch  a film produced by del Toro and directed by his protégée.

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona as his first feature film, he must have done something right, because he’s just finished making The Impossible with Ewan McGregorNaomi Watts and Geraldine Chaplin.  Of course he had del Toro to guide him and it shows. The Orphanage  looks, feels and sounds like a del Toro film.

But that is not a bad thing, at all.

The Orphanage, or El Orfanato, is a Genre film. This term Genre was coined when critics tried to put Joss Wedon’s works into a specific genre. Whedon specialises in blending several different genres into one film or program, hence the use of a new film type of genre that is called just ‘genre.’ The term fits this film like a glove.

The film combines elements from the worlds of horror, the supernatural, fantasy, mystery, thriller, drama and tragedy. It borrows more than a little from the children’s tale of Peter Pan and the lost boys. It also offers up deep heart breaking truths that almost make you want to pull your hair and rend your cloths with grief for the main character. It is in essence the very picture of a ‘Genre’ film and it is a masterpiece by any definition.

The film opens in 1976, a young girl named Laura is playing with her friends and fellow orphanage ‘inmates’ when she finds out that she has been adopted. Playing the game, one-two-three-knock on the wall is the last activity she will enjoy with her friends.

The film moves up to present day and the now 37 year old Laura (Belén Rueda) and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) along with their adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) move back to her old orphanage home. She and Carlos have purchased the old building with plans to renovate it into a home for disabled and terminally ill children. Laura and Carlos want to do this for two reasons, Simón their adopted son has HIV and is dying and Laura has wonderful memories of the place and wants to recreate them with Carlos’s help. Especially poignant is the fact that Simón doesn’t know that he is dying.

While Carlos and Laura are renovating the old orphanage, Simón has found a new friend Tomás and Laura gets a visit from a ‘social worker’ Benigna Escobeda (Montserrat Carulla) who says she checking on Simón because of his HIV status. Later Laura finds Escobeda skulking around the coal cellar. She and Carlos call the police who reveal that Escobeda is not a social worker.

Simón draws a picture of his new friend and he shows him having a cloth bag over his head. Laura is intrigued but is too busy organising an open day party to raise interest in the planned children’s home. On the day of the party,  Simón and Laura have a huge falling out. It seems that Tomás and the other ‘invisible’ children that Simón has been playing with have shown him his adoption file and that he will soon die from the HIV.  A fact that neither Laura nor Carlos have passed on to Simón.

Laura tries to make up with Simón who wants her to see Tomás’s “little house” but because of the party she doesn’t have time. With Simón angry at her again, he storms off to play with his friend. During the party, Laura keeps seeing a child with a burlap bag over his head. When she tries to track him down, he vanishes. So does Simón. During the party both Laura and Carlos look for him but he cannot  be found. The police are contacted and they think that perhaps Escobeda has taken him.

The rest of the film deals with Laura and Carlos trying to find Simón and work out what happened to him.

As I said at the beginning of this article, this film has so many elements in it. Geraldine Chaplain has a cameo as a psychic that Laura and Carlos call in to help them find out what happened to Simón. Whether you think of The Orphanage as a ghost film, a fantasy or, especially after the ending, a bittersweet fairy tale, the film will affect you.

I found myself jumping with fright, tensing with suspense, flinching with horror and getting a  lump in my throat with tears streaming down my face, several times during the film. The allusions to Peter Pan and Laura being a Spanish Wendy to Simón and  the ‘lost children’ of the orphanage are obvious and heartbreaking.

If you watch The Orphanage, be prepared to be put through an emotional wringer. But believe me, it is worth the exhausting  journey that you take with these characters.

Guillermo del Toro has taught Juan Antonio Bayona well.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001): Guillermo del Toro’s Tour de Force

Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, HellboyThe Devil’s Backbone  is a slow and haunting film that frightens and mesmerises the viewer. Overshadowed by the wildly successful Pan’s Labyrinth, the film is a lesser known film, that despite the success of Labyrinth, is a superior film.

Set during the 1939 Spanish civil war, the film follows Carlos’s arrival to an all boys orphanage located in the war-torn countryside. We follow Carlos in his day-to-day experiences and his interaction with everyone at the orphanage.

The film starts with the camera zooming in on the Orphanage itself, with the narrator, Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) asking: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat it self time and again?” We see a bomb being sent to earth by a plane and its landing in the orphanage and we see the body of a young boy lying on the ground.

The narration continues. “An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An  emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”  While the last of the narration continues, we see that the boy’s head is covered in blood and that another boy is with him. We then see the bloodied boy in water, sinking slowly down as bubbles rise around him.

This wonderfully mesmerizing opening goes on during the opening credits of the film. And it sets the mood of the film brilliantly. This narrative by Dr Casares sets up the framework of the film. His questioning of what a ghost is tells us that the orphanage is haunted and just from the opening scenes alone, we can tell it is haunted by several spectres.

Carlos is brought to the orphanage by car, speeding through the dusty and desolate countryside. Carlos is with his guardian and bodyguard who is taking him there for his own safety while the civil war escalates. Upon arriving the first thing noticed is the unexploded bomb. It is half buried in the dusty courtyard of the orphanage. This is the first spectre that both haunts and threatens the inhabitants of the orphanage.

Carlos himself comes from a ‘wealthy’ family and he is convinced that he is there temporarily for his own safety. It transpires that he will be there much longer. Initially, Carlos has trouble fitting in with the other boys and he has trouble sleeping. He sees the ghost of the boy we saw at the beginning of the film. His greatest antagonist is Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) but this changes when Carlos saves Jaime from drowning in the ‘dead-boy’s’ pool. 

It turns out that the real bully of the orphanage is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) an alumni of the orphanage who stayed to work there when he grew up. Jacinto is the second spectre that haunts the orphanage. A spectre with a pleasing countenance who is full of bad thoughts and evil deeds. He is also the local ‘stud’ servicing, it seems, all the women in the orphanage. Including the ‘head’ of the place, the one legged Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is loved by Dr Casares.

Dr Casares is the third spectre of the orphanage. Impotent and a man of poetry and great passion, he loves Carmen but says nothing as he knows he cannot please her as a man. Instead he is haunted regularly by the sounds of her love making with Jacinto. And later in the film Casares will become a ‘real’ spectre who protects the boys and saves them from danger.

The boys of the orphanage tell Carlos that the ghost he sees is that of Santi (Junio Valverde) who went missing the night the bomb fell into the orphanage courtyard. The only person who knows what really happened is Jaime and Carlos (and the audience) believe that Jaime killed Santi. Santi is the  third ‘Gothic’ spectre who haunts the orphanage.

While the ghostly sightings and discussions are going on, we find out that the orphanage is the repository for the rebel’s funds. Gold is kept there to help feed and arm the rebels. Jacinto finds out about this and plots to steal it. Dr Casares goes to town and witnesses Carlos’s guardian and body guard’s  execution by government soldiers and is questioned and insulted by the same soldiers. The civil war is getting closer to the orphanage.

This film was all about ghosts and being haunted. All the characters are haunted by things. Things in their past, their present and their possible futures. And it was about ghosts.

The ghosts or spectres are many, the unexploded bomb, Santi’s spirit, Dr Casare, the gold and the civil war itself are all spectres that haunt the characters in the film. There are other ‘ghosts’ and you will discover that everyone in the film is affected by them.

I believe this film, should be considered the apex of Guillermo’s career as a director. The Devil’s Backbone is a film that does not take one miss step in its execution of the story and the building of it’s characters. It was annoyingly difficult to find at one point, I had several friends tell me, they could not find a copy to view.

If you can find this film. Watch it. You will not be disappointed and you will most likely fall in love with this Spanish film and it’s creator.

Guillermo del Toro