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El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I would classify this film not as horror, but rather psychological suspense, more in tune with The Haunting and The Innocents than the graphic gore that typifies Hollywood horror films of recent years. There is nothing here that is unique, it utilizes all of the standard tropes of this type of film, yet it is the execution that raises this one above many others. Atmospheric sets and photography, realistic and sympathetic performances, along with several extra elements of tragedy for two of the characters.

Laura (Belén Rueda) had been raised in a small orphanage on the northern coast of Spain. She is adopted at the age of seven or eight, and is taken away from the only five friends she has ever known. As an adult, and an adoptive parent herself, she and her doctor husband (Cayo) have purchased the abandoned orphanage and made it their home, with the intention of opening it to special needs children.

Their son Simón (Princep) is cute and precocious, known to play with a couple of imaginary friends, as is typical of lonely children. I can't recall the names of his two friends, but it does not matter, since shortly after the move he acquires new ones, the first being Tomás, whom he meets in a cave on the beach beneath the cliffs of a nearby abandoned lighthouse. On their trip back home, Simón lays a trail of seashells so that his new friend can find his way. The next morning Laura discovers mounds of the shells outside their front door.

I will admit that there are several confusing elements to the screenplay, along with at least one illogical supposition, but those can be forgotten as the story is unfolding. The high point is the performance of Rueda as Laura, a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life and is continuing to experience it on a daily basis (Simón is HIV positive). Another standout is Geraldine Chaplin as the medium Aurora, brought to the home after the disappearance of Simón during a party welcoming several other children who would be living with them.

To say any more would be treading on spoiler territory, which is always a danger in reviews. Suffice it to say, as is my usual intention, I wouldn't be writing a review if I didn't recommend this film. It is a cliche, but it is haunting on many levels, and even though it is not that scary at the time you see it, many elements will stay with you for hours afterwards, and possibly inhabit your dreams. I predict it will get a nomination for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, and if there is any justice then Rueda's performance will be recognized as well.

[Well, I was wrong about that, but the Academy has made many stupid decisions over the years. This film did win or was nominated for quite a few other awards, which you can see at this LINK.

I give it **** out of 5.


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Juan Antonio Bayona

Sergio G. Sánchez

January 11, 2008 (US)

Belén Rueda
Fernando Cayo
Roger Princep
Mabel Rivera
Montserrat Carulla
Geraldine Chaplin

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray