Monday, April 6, 2020

Returning to THE ORPHANAGE

Passionate acting, penetrating tones, and powerful direction has kept J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage in my top twenty theatrical experiences in the past fifteen years.

Do you remember your favorite theatrical releases from 2007? Were you among the crowds flooding to Superbad, Hairspray, Ghost Rider, 300, Transformers, or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? If so, you never saw me. With my low college budget and even lower tolerance for anything outside of horror, I obviously drifted to theaters promising darker situations. My nachos with jalapeno peppers never stood a chance once I sat before screens showing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleetwood, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Mist, Halloween, I Am Legend, and Death Proof. I lived in New York City’s theaters that year. And yet, what left one of the biggest impacts was not a major worldwide release, but one released late September at the New York Film Festival that year.

In the film, Laura (Belén Rueda) had wonderful memories in the orphanage she grew up in. Now, as an adult, she convinces her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Símon (Roger Príncep) to move into the abandoned orphanage, seeking to revitalize it into a place for disabled children. In this mansion, Simon keeps himself busy with his imaginary friends. He plays treasure hunt games with them, where he discovers hidden items that eventually lead to a promise of one wish being granted. Laura plays with him once, discovering important items that eventually lead to Simon discovering that he is HIV positive and is not their biological child. This conversation is difficult for the family, but the mission behind being in this house remains.

The house is almost ready. A party begins. The children and their loved ones enter the resuscitated orphanage. But soon after, Símon goes missing. Months pass. Laura, grief-stricken, begins to believe that she hears spirits, who may or may not be trying to help her find Simon. Belén Rueda is a Spanish actress, known for her role as Julia in The Sea Inside (2004), for which she won a Goya Award, Spain’s main national film award. In 2007, she was nominated for another Goya award, this time for her role as Laura in The Orphanage.

Director J.A. Bayona, also a native of Spain, is known for A Monster Calls (2016), The Impossible (2012), Penny Dreadful, and Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings series. Unfortunately, I did little research into him as a director when The Orphanage first released. My initial exposure to his precision in a film came through a Vanity Fair video, where he detailed a scene from his 2018 box office hit Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom.

Oscar Faura was the cinematographer on Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom. His work relationship with Bayona can be traced back through The Impossible, A Monster Calls, and further to The Orphanage. Typically, I marvel at a cinematographer’s use of lighting, but Faura’s work encourages you to admire his use of shadows. A shadowy cave can loom over the shoulders of an innocent child, or a mother’s eye surrounded by shadows can forewarn you of the terror she sees. His ability to manipulate a screenplay with lenses and little light leaves no doubt as to why I enjoy his films long after watching them.

Sergio G. Sanchez, writer of The Secret of Marrowbone and The Impossible, crafted the screenplay for The Orphanage. The plot flows well, with superb pacing to surprises and plot twists. But Sanchez’s dialogue, impressive throughout most of the movie, replays constantly in my mind, specifically from an innocent exchange between mother and son. In the scene, Laura sits across from Símon as he reads Peter Pan. He asks why Wendy never returns to Neverland whenever Peter Pan comes to pick up her daughter. The explanation leads Símon to promise that he will never grow old. He is proud; Laura is not, knowing of his HIV condition that she lacked the courage to tell him about. Her silence revealed that she partly agreed with him: he would not live long. However, when he disappears, her love for him transcends even death as she searches endlessly for him to return to her side.

The theme of this film is that you must believe in what you don’t see until it becomes reality. It unravels the powers of hope, also showing that this power can fade when you tolerate people who don’t believe in what you believe in.

This thematic and theatrical experience is one that won’t be soon forgotten. I have lived with it for twelve years, confident that it will continue to stand as one that I often return to, whether for the dialogue, the cinematography, the acting, the music, or the editing. All of these pieces come together to make this a heartfelt tale and a worthwhile experience. Point blank. Period.

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