Tuesday, January 29, 2008

THE ORPHANAGE (2007)….8/10

Relative newcomer J.A. Bayona has fashioned an unexpected sense of sanity about the peculiarities of this tense psychological horror film. I hesitate to use the maxim of ‘horror’ to describe THE ORPHANAGE because of all the unfortunate resonance of mediocrity the term has. But rest assured, Bayona is, here, a confident and sensitive helmsman of precarious material.

Belen Rueda plays Laura, a mother suffering through the disappearance of her child from their new home; the very orphanage in which she lived as a child, that she has now purchased and renovated. Rather than simply and typically descending into a state of exponential madness, Laura retains a shade of self awareness about the stress, absurdity, and peculiarity of her increasing spectral encounters, encounters that hold clues to her sons whereabouts, even as she seems to actively deteriorate. I was surprised at the mostly rational mind she kept while suffering and mentally spiraling; thinking things through in the terms of the ghosts' own playful dogma, keeping a cautioned openness during the session with the medium (Geraldine Chaplin), etc.

The unfolding of the narrative is tactful, never relying on cheap, manipulative, or arbitrary tactics to frighten. All anxiety and tension arises from within the narratives construction, rather than, as in most horror films, from without. The gravity of the film arises from the wholly convincing emotional weight of the characters amidst their plight, and the subdued but eerie goings on. I’d be remiss to neglect that THE ORPHANAGE not only well written, but is also beautifully and hauntingly photographed. Cinematographer Oscar Faura avoids the cliché of overly personifying the house, turning it into a character of evil. The orphanage, as a structure, is simply the place in which something terrible happened (though it is not especially the focus of the drama). The austere of those unseemly events is palpably present, but doesn’t turn the house into some unlikely deviant structure. The characters are almost always present over the architecture anyway. For that, and many other tonal decisions, THE ORPHANAGE is quite reasonable in terms of what it expects the audience to believe or to swallow as far as the supernatural is concerned, making the finale and the 'medium' sequence resound that much more.

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