El Orfanato: ghosts of Spanish cinema come out to play…

3 Oct

Joanna Wilson

El Orfanato (The Orphanage), written in 1996 by Sergio G. Sánchez and produced eleven years later under the direction of Juan Antonio Bayona, is a psychological thriller/mild horror film of certificate 15.

The plot centres on Laura (played by Belén Rueda) who, after thirty years, returns with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) to the beachside orphanage where she lived as a child. Laura plans to renovate the now derelict house in order create a sanctuary for children with special needs. At first, the tone of the film is relatively unthreatening with a number of scenes depicting happy family life, Laura’s secure relationship with her husband and the strong bond she shares with her son. Seven year-old Simón has a very vivid imagination and is frequently playing elaborate games of make-believe with his imaginary friends. Laura and Carlos initially humour this behaviour but, as the the dark and eery passages of the old orphanage seem to encourage increasingly sinister inclinations in the boy’s ‘imagination’, suspicions are raised as to how ‘imaginary’ Simón’s mysterious, ghostly friends really are and the dark secrets of Laura’s childhood begin to unfurl.

As far as ‘horrors’ go, El Orfanato is not at all gruesome or gory, and violent scenes are rare. Instead, moments of fright are achieved via psychological suspense and surprise, basically ‘messing with your mind’ – a device that can be just as terrifying and effective as the use of violence or shock tactics.

Due perhaps to its psychological intensity, El Orfanato has been described by The Guardian as “THE NEW ‘PAN’S LABYRINTH’.” This could be because both films create their horrific and psychologically thrilling element by confusing a vivid child’s imagination with reality, up to a point where they are near inseparable in the mind not only of the protagonist, but also that of the audience themselves.

El Orfanato has also been compared (by TimeOut Magazine) to The Others. This comparison makes sense because, throughout each film, the audience’s (as well as the protagonists’) perception of the ‘real world’ is askew. Confusion and deception are maintained and increased until the very end of the film. Then and only then is the truth, for which both parties have been searching for the duration of the film, finally revealed.

Overall, El Orfanato is an extremely gripping, involving and moving film and, in my opinion, far more emotionally satisfying and effective than can usually be expected of a typical horror film. It seems to me that there is something particularly ‘special’ about Spanish cinema (note that The Others had an almost entirely Spanish production team) that goes that little bit further to affect its audience, using cinematic techniques and plotline twists that Paramount and Hollywood are perhaps too scared to attempt, for fear of a lack of conformity to ‘blockbuster’ requirements. These twists and turns appear in the plot right up until the very end of the film, but to go any further into how and why they are so effective would ruin your own viewing experience!

I do so encourage you to check this film out for yourself, whether you are a Spanish speaker or not (the friend who first recommended this film to me has never studied Spanish in her life!).

El Orfanato is an exciting and interesting psychological thriller and, whether or not you with agree with all that I’ve said, I’m sure will agree that it is certainly worth watching!

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