Seeing is not believing. It’s the other way around.
— Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin)
“Your friends will miss you a lot, Laura.” Watched over by a silhouetted matron, seven-year-old Laura (Mireia Renau) is playing with those friends — adorable, scampering, uniformed orphans — and none has any idea that she’s been adopted and will soon begin a new life. The light is grey, the shadows deep. And as the sounds of children playing give way to an ominous score, the first minutes of The Orphanage (El Orfanato) set up a familiar mix of nostalgia, regret, and dread. Wherever Laura goes, you imagine, her friends will be with her.
It’s not long before you see just how literally this idea will be turned in The Orphanage, Spain’s nominee for the Foreign Language Oscar. The second scene offers up seven-year-old Simón (Roger Príncep), waking from a nightmare and calling for his mommy, Laura grown up to be played by the superb Belén Rueda. As she makes her way to his bedroom, she stumbles over boxes: she and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have just moved with their son to the same foreboding orphanage on the Costa Verde, fulfilling her lifelong dream and refitting the place as a home for “special children.” Simón is one such child, HIV-positive (though he doesn’t know why he takes his many medicines) and possessed of a vivid imagination. When he arrives at his new home, he has brought with Watson and Pepe, two invisible friends with whom he shares his sleepless first night (“They didn’t sleep a wink,” he reports the next morning). And on his first day at the old orphanage, he finds some more.
Simón meets his new companions in a cave out on the beach — the sounds of waves crashing fading as he wanders deeper and deeper into the darkness. When at last Laura catches up, he’s inviting an unseen someone to visit him at home. Laura’s flashlight reveals nothing but shadows and can’t help but wonder what Simón is up to. The moment marks a rupture in their relationship, a shift premised in Laura’s archetypal fears — of losing her child, herself, and her control. Though she has endured Watson and Pepe, this turn in Simón attitude toward his mother — childishly rebellious in the ways it excludes her and also rejects her own experience — frightens Laura, and so she tries to re-anchor her son in her world. What she can’t (or won’t) know is that her past is gradually overtaking him along with her, to the point that his experience will become hers, however obscured and however malevolent.
And yet, she can only see Simón slipping away. Increasingly immersed in her perspective, The Orphanage rehearses some common scary-movie notions: as her maternal sensibility is associated with loss, so her sense of self is associated with the house. Once out of the cave, Simón’s new companions lead him more deeply inside the house, into Laura’s past but also into his own experience, apart from hers. Repeatedly, the film makes the mother and son’s journey into literal adventures through the house. Led on a “treasure hunt” by his new friends, Simón discovers some essential truths that Laura and Carlos have kept hidden, that he’s positive, and oh yes, adopted as well. Simón’s accusations (“You’re not my mother!”) shake Laura, who works hard to maintain her focus on opening up her home for “special children,” despite Simón’s serial traumas, a focus that makes both her and her son vulnerable to the seeming whims of the house, the haunting figures who embody her past and Simón’s future.
Laura follows her own generic path, feeling increasingly guilty, afraid, and frustrated, incongruously unable to see beyond the house and also, of course, egged on by a portentous caretaker (Montserrat Carulla). Her fears are based in her past, incarnated in Simón’s “special” status, his physical illness and emotional resilience, fragility and strength, naïveté and insight. Such aspects make him one of those eerie kid-characters so typical of scary movies, in touch with a murky emotional realm shaped by loss, mourning, and a desire for vengeance. Here The Orphanage recalls previous haunted house movies, from Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Kubrick’s The Shining, to Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others and The Devil’s Backbone (whose brilliant, bighearted director, Guillermo del Toro, is the present film’s producer). The place itself begins to breathe, simultaneously metaphor and manifestation of lurking human qualms and cruelties.
Such sensibility is made visible in The Orphanage via generic conventions — long hallways, baleful stairways, jarring close-ups. During a reception at the orphanage where “special kids” guests don animal and monster masks, Laura first loses her temper with Simón (an event that she comes to regret more than she can say) and is soon after startled by a child in a sinister-seeming burlap mask (Óscar Casas). As the camera looks down on this short figure (evoking Don’t Look Now as much as The Omen or Poltergeist — it assumes her limited perspective, and you realize (again) that you’re locked into a troubled, probably untruthful view. As much as Laura resists recognizing the extremity of the troubles besetting her family (“I grew up here,” she says, mouthing the same rationale that has doomed any number of horror movie victims in the past), at last she has to admit that something is very, very wrong.
This leads to efforts to put it right, instigated by Professor Leo Balaban (Edgar Vivar), an expert in the subconscious (where, “Jung says, ‘The living coexist with the dead'”) and the “doppelganger.” The introduction of the “expert,” as always, represents the family’s inability to figure out the puzzle or recover a sense of trust. Carlos can’t console his wife or convince her to leave the house; she’s determined to find what’s been lost. As the house continues to suck their energies, Balaban enters, with a psychic, Aurora (the excellent Geraldine Chaplin), as well as night-vision cameras and banks of monitors. No surprise, all the high tech only muddles the picture, and Laura resorts to her own devices, hoping to solve her own puzzle.
If such connection between sensibility and space, maternity and horror, childhood and long dark corridors, is unsurprising, Rueda imbues Laura with her own, original horrors. At once mother and child, victim and antagonist, space and inhabitant, she’s remarkable, but also traumatized and unnerving. Though The Orphanage allows her a kind of resolution, it’s hardly comforting.