Wednesday, December 10, 2008

THE ORPHANAGE (El Orfanato)--A Hauntingly Beautiful Ghost Story

I'd wanted to see this film since it came out, but I missed it in theaters, and then I seemed to keep forgetting to rent or buy. Last week, I decided to buy this based on 1. the good reviews and 2. the fact that Guillermo del Toro (one of my very fave directors whose ghost story--The Devil's Backbone--is one of my fave films, he produced this). And 3. had it super cheap. :)

Well, no disappointment here. Not in any part. This is a gorgeous film. And very scary.

The acting, the direction, the scenery, the set design, the script, the music, the ending--it all worked together, all paid off in spades.

This story starts off slowly, gently. But from the first images of children playing a game in the yard fronting a large, mansion-style orphanage--the shadows, the direction, the way the action of an innocent game is set up--the film perfectly sets the tone of the film. It's nostalgic, but it's also slightly creepy. It foreshadows a lot. Pay attention here.

Zoom years later. One of those children who'd been playing in the yard, a girl named Laura who got adopted, is now grown with a son. We find out the main characters--mother, father, son Simon--are now owners of the former orphanage and plan to set up a residence to care for special needs children. Simon, himself, is a special needs child: He has HIV.

Soon, the game of "invisible friends" takes on an ominous reality. And every scene builds tension, builds, builds, until one really is at the edge of one's seat as this mother is thrown into the greatest nightmare of parents.

The film then asks the question--of the lead and of the viewer--how far will a mother, this mother, go to find her missing son?

While the conclusion felt inevitable and was pretty obvious quite early on (the clues are all there, and the script does not cheat), it's the HOW of getting to it that makes this all work. Every twist is fairly--if not all are overtly--foreshadowed. The small actions and words that lead us along to those conclusions can be easily missed if we focus on something that seems more emotional or important in each scene.

I cannot describe how beautiful the finale--the climactic moment-- is. Tragedy, sorrow, redemption and beauty all coalesce. It is a miraculous cooperation of acting/direction/storytelling/setting/lighting and music that brings us to this moment of bittersweet magic.

The denouement is lovely, too, leaving us with a feeling of what we lose as human beings, mortal beings, and what we can gain if there is more than mere matter.

Tragedy redeemed--that's what I thought as I went to bed after seeing this.

Yes, this is a ghost story that disturbs mightily, and the scares are surely present, but it is not a gore-show. It is a more human and artistic ghost story, and is in fact MORE than a ghost story. It's a story of family and friendship, and of a mother who will not give up, because the deepest love outlives the grave, even defeats the grave.

You really need to see this film. Magnificent. (And pay very close attention to EVERYTHING, for all the strings come together in the end.)

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