Once in a while, a movie makes me wish I could come at certain movies through personal experience, like seeing Gravity through the eyes of an astronaut or seeing Clueless through the eyes of a teenage girl. I think it might add something to my experience of those movies, great as they are at expressing those experiences.
El Orfanato (The Orphanage) is a movie that makes me glad I am not a parent.
I’m 46 years old and probably at this point will never have a child, and I cannot imagine how this movie plays for parents. Frankly, I’m not sure I want to. Watching it again today, I was torn apart all over again at the story and the mood and the sad despair.
But hey, let’s back up. The movie opens as Laura (Belén Rueda),her husband Carlos, and their adopted son Simón move into a new house, one that Laura (who was herself an adoptee) is working to turn into a home for children. It’s your standard older house by the sea in Spain, nothing really that creepy, maybe a little too dark blue, with shadows in the corners and cliffs and caves along the seashore.
What makes this movie one of the superior horror films of the aughts is…it’s not that horrific to start with. The strangeness doesn’t really start until the day Simón disappears, even though the house is a wee bit odd. But when Simón disappears on the day of the youth home’s opening, Laura starts seeing children in sack masks and being trapped in places while those children are in places they shouldn’t be.
I’m going to embed the trailer for this in the post but I want to note if you’ve never seen it: that is not the movie you are going to watch. The vast majority of the movie is Laura dealing with the suspended grief of a missing child, not knowing if Simón is alive or dead, and trying to deal with that while also being a partner to her husband. (If there is a weakness in this movie, by the way, it’s that Carlosis kind of a cipher. But this whole movie is essentially Laura’s story, so it’s really not that big of a deal.)
The Oscars, I feel, have gotten better at nominating performances from non-English languages. Sadly, in 2007, they completely missed the boat on Belén Rueda. She’s one of the absolute best performances of that year, a woman dealing with her missing child, a possibly haunted house, and all that entails. (Similarly, Essie Davis in The Babadook was ignored a few years later.) Along with her and Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense, these are great performances of women playing mothers whose motherhood is important but not isn’t all that defines them.
That said, here is where I get to why I’m glad I’m not a parent when I’m watching this movie. Belén Rueda is so damn good at portraying that suspended grief and what happens in this movie terrifies me as a non-parent. I would honestly love to hear from parents who read this and want to talk about how it worked for them.
This really is one of the finest horror movies of the last couple of decades, and full credit to Guillermo del Toro who championed writer/director J. A. Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez’s script. It is a movie that is a work of love and fantasy and terror and really should be better regarded among modern horror films.