A Scary, Superb Orphanage

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Belen Rueda in the Spanish thriller "The Orphanage"

At Cannes the critics are herded like sheep from one official selection to another. We see our first movie at 8:30 a.m., the another at 11, perhaps a third at 1, and so on through the day and night. Our schedule is so tightly controlled that only rarely do we get to see an out-of-the-way film. But once in a while, a film that's not on our liturgical calendar gains a must-see reputation. At press luncheons or in the corridors by the critics' mail boxes, we hear of a picture that has seized some early viewers' imaginations and becomes a Word of Mouth hit. Then we beg the publicist for an extra screening. It's as if we learned that a cup of café au lait at some backwater dive was the Holy Grail. Gotta have a sip from that. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

That's the urgent odor that this year attached itself to The Orphanage, a Spanish thriller written by Sergio G. Sanchez, directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona and shown in the little-attended Critics' Week section. The movie does have a pedigree: it was executive-produced by Guillermo Del Toro, the Mexican filmmaker whose Pan's Labyrinth had its world premiere at last year's festival before becoming a surprise hit and an Oscar-winner in the States. The Orphanage has the same vital vibe: the sense that all crafts of filmmaking are bent to leading us into another, darker, magical world. The happy news is twofold: The Orphanage quite lives up to its billing; and it's been bought for U.S. release by Picturehouse, the company that distributed Pan's Labyrinth.

The movie echoes Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and other literary and cinematic works (including The Others, also by a Spanish director) that investigate the power the dead have over the living, especially over children in the most imaginative and vulnerable stages. It concerns Laura (Belen Rueda), who as a child spent time in the Good Shepherd Orphanage before being adopted. For her the orphanage was not a horror house but the dearest refuge, where she had a half-dozen close friends her age, and which she recalls so fondly that after her marriage to a nice doctor, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), she persuades him that they should buy the place and make it their home.

Laura wants more: to adopt imperiled children. They already have one: seven-year-old Simon (Roger Princep), a sweet, cheerful, sensitive boy who knows neither that he is adopted nor that he was born HIV positive. Surely Laura and Carlos love him at least as much as any birth child. But they are both beguiled and troubled by Simon's affinity for imaginary friends: Watson and Pepe, whose invisible eccentricities (as related by Simon) they've got used to, and a new companion, Tomas, whose influence seems much more malignant.

During a lawn party Laura and Carlos arrange for handicapped children, Simon disappears. After six months' searching, he is presumed kidnapped or dead — by everyone but Laura. She has begun to feel palpitations in the old house, hints of other, unquiet spirits. They may mean her harm, if they exist. But Laura, seized by sorrow, believes the voices are speaking to her — that they may have risen from her past to help her find Simon.

Like Pan's Labyrinth, where the young girl at the center of the film dwelt simultaneously in the horrifying reality of war-ravaged Spain and in a Wonderland retreat of fauns and goblins, The Orphanage zooms along on two parallel tracks. One is realistic, prosaic; it says that Laura's grief over Simon's loss has driven her to desperation and toward suicidal madness. The other, with acknowledgments to J.M.Barrie's Peter Pan, is fantastic, or poetic: it suggests that her grief has opened her to other realities, put her in touch with souls crying from the beyond for justice. As a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) tells Laura, “Your pain gives you strength; it will guide you. Seeing is not believing — it's the other way around.”

Maybe so. But to see The Orphanage is to believe in the power of images to evoke emotions. Bayona, working in the old-dark-house genre, is already a master of creepy mood and gorgeous visions. The colors in the house are rich browns, until night falls and a luscious darkness stripes the screen. Bayona sets his camera relentlessly gliding, creeping, tracking toward the eeriest mystery, or backing away from it to reflect our fear. He loves to lead us on treasure hunts and into secret compartments: doors and drawers, which may suddenly burst open or slam shut, and yet another, unknown portal, hidden behind wallpaper, where the last revelation awaits.

Rueda, who lost nearly 20 lbs. during the shoot, gives her all to portraying Laura, and some may think it's too much; her intensity practically snaps at the camera as if to bite it off. But this strong, handsome woman (seen with Javier Bardem in the Oscar-nominated The Sea Inside three years back) has the will and daring to turn the audience into believers.

We grant that the movie is indebted to dozens of previous psychological thrillers, from Psycho and The Haunting (a tingly scene where Laura feels someone snuggle into her bed, thinks its Carlos, then is shocked to see him enter the room), from the Spanish Spirit of the Beehive to Del Toro's own The Devil's Backbone. And there are moments when plausibility takes a back seat to the need to make Laura stay one or two more nights in the condemned manor — when she does things because, well, because it's a scary movie. But there will be other moments so tense, you'll need to calm yourself by saying, “It's only a movie!”

And at the end, you'll realize that the filmmakers had something deeper in mind and heart: the need for a bereft woman to reunite, at whatever cost, with the people she has loved, wherever they are. For these two Cannes veterans, the impact of the movie was devastating and uplifting.

In North America, let the Word of Mouth begin.