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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008

Spanish Gothic

Ghosts in the orphanage

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THE ORPHANAGE • Belen Rueda • Fernando Cayo • Geraldine Chaplin Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona • Rated R

Spain is a land of ghosts, if recent novels and films are any marker. The country has been the setting and has produced authors and directors of some of the most intriguing supernatural fiction of the last decade. Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) returns to Iberia as producer of Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona’s latest addition to the spectral roll call, a subtitled Spanish language film called The Orphanage.

In what could be taken as a warning that you can’t go home again, Laura (Belen Rueda) moves into the orphanage where she spent her early childhood. She plans to live in the old gothic mansion with her physician husband and adopted boy Simon, and to transform parts of its dark wainscoted halls into a boutique clinic for specialneeds children. Simon has many needs of his own. He is HIV positive and must live on a regimen of pills. He’s also lonely, has imaginary friends and begins picking up a gaggle of new invisible companions after moving into the former orphanage.

The old mansion groans in the night, doors creak open without the aid of human hands and a creepy woman passing as a social worker pokes around on mysterious errands. Low-grade anxiety, clinging to Simon and Laura like a slight fever that won’t go away, rises to panic when the special-needs kids and their parents arrive for a welcome-to-the-home masquerade. In scenes of disorienting terror, Simon vanishes and Laura is attacked by a heavy-breathing, shambling figure dressed in an old orphanage smock, his head covered by an ugly sack with holes cut for eyes.

Not unlike The Others by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, The Orphanage zigzags between the living and the dead, time and dimensions, as easily as a ghost walking through walls. In a high-strung short performance, a medium (the wonderful Geraldine Chaplin) finds echoes from the past of badly mistreated children in the dormitory wing. Turns out the mysterious social worker once worked at the orphanage and had a severely deformed, always masked son answering to the description of Laura’s assailant. The police, naturally, are without a clue.

So many tens of thousands died during the Spanish Civil War, so many disappeared into one torture chamber or another, that restless ghosts may be a half-unconscious metaphor for the country’s recent past. Every nation, however, harbors ghosts, and what is true of societies is even truer of individuals.

Strange shapes will always stir in the darkness of the night and in the darkness of consciousness. The Orphanage’s message may be the medium’s parting words to Laura: “It’s not seeing is believing. It’s believing is seeing.”

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