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Shriekfest 2010: “El Orfanato,” “Wolf Creek”

“El Orfanato” (2007)
Starring Belén Rueda, Roger Príncep, Fernando Cayo, Montserrat Carulla

Cheery, idyllic childhoods are uncommon. Laura (Rueda) believes she had one, and she wants to recreate the experience by reopening the orphanage of her youth, now a rambling, creaky building in disrepair. Since moving in, though, Laura and her husband Carlos (Cayo) have noticed some alarming changes in their adopted son Simón (Príncep). Simón begins to talk of a new friend, Tomás – invisible to Laura and Carlos – who lives in the orphanage and wears a sack mask. An eerie woman (Carulla) who claims to be a social worker shows up unannounced with a file on Simón; later that night, Laura spots her lurking in the coal shed. The bizarre events culminate in Simón’s disappearance, and Laura’s growing suspicions that the orphanage may be haunted by ghosts of the friends she left behind. In that respect, “El Orfanato” is a beautifully shot, nerve-wracking ghost story in deliciously ominous setting. Director Juan Antonio Bayona goes only for the under-the-skin frights – the unexplained thumps and bangs above and in the walls; unrelenting, hostile silence; Laura’s growing certainty that someone or something in the house is toying with her. Or has her grief driven her to the brink of madness? Bayona – and Rueda, who delivers a raw, heart-twisting performance – give away nothing until the moment is absolutely right. Because in “El Orfanato,” as in all good ghost stories, it’s the tale, the people and spirits wrapped up in it that matter most. A

“Wolf Creek” (2005)
Starring Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips, John Jarratt

The forever-winding Australian outback is said to be one of the harshest, most inhospitable natural environments in the world. Greg McLean has that dusty, barren soil in his blood, which explains why in “Wolf Creek” the outback feels as much like a character as any of the unknown actors. The terrain appears to watch, silently and knowingly, as three friends – English tourists Liz (Magrath) and Kristy (Morassi), plus their Aussie pal Ben (Phillips) – travel deeper into the middle of nowhere in search of a crater. It’s but a matter of time before the car won’t crank and the trio faces a night huddled together inside, away from the unforgiving landscape. Obliging, helpful chap Mick (Jarratt) drives up, his headlights like glowing animal eyes breaking up the darkness, and offers to tow them to his camp and fix the car. In his odd smile and tone there’s an edge only Ben catches, but he’s outnumbered and a little too eager to impress Liz. Only after Mick has towed the travelers hours from the crater do they realize his only interest in mercy is making them scream bloody murder for it. The unblinking torture (like the bit with the severed spinal cord) and the endless, agonized sobbing are a bit gratuitous at times, and certainly a bit heavy-handed, but McLean does what he sets out to. He crafts a film that flirts with torture porn yet has enough smarts, psychological chills and awe-worthy cinematography to stand squarely apart from it. B+

No. 35: “Mar adentro” (2004)

“A life without freedom is not a life.”
~~Ramón Sampedro

There is an impulse, very human and universal, to tend to wounds as we discover them: to salve the burns, clean and stitch the gashes, soothe the scrapes. This impulse extends to our reaction to people who want nothing more than to die; we must coax them away from the edge and convince them of them of life’s welcoming beauty. “There is so much to live for,” we insist, feeling a sense of urgency frightening because it makes us wonder if there’s conviction or just convention behind it.

This is the rocky terrain that director/screenwriter Alejandro Amenábar carefully but adeptly navigates in “Mar adentro,”* winner of the 2004 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. His haunting, difficult film centers on the true story of Galicia-born Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem, displaying astonishing warmth and humor), a quadriplegic who spent nearly three decades arguing for his right to assisted suicide. Paralyzed by a botched cliff dive at age 25, Ramón did not accept his condition as people wanted. Instead, he spent his remaining years of his life sure of just one thing: he wanted to end it. Ramón’s yearning for death flew in the face of everyone’s unspoken expectations — that he accept his reality bravely, that he press on because that’s what people do. He did not react accordingly; Ramón challenged people to consider, really consider, the cruelty of forcing him to keep living when all he wanted was to die.

Without the right director and lead actor, a man like Ramón Sampedro might not translate to the screen, or seem too much like a martyr than an actual human being. Amenábar, in his beautifully lensed and poignantly written film, sidesteps these dangers by honing in on Ramón’s very personal story and his relationships with his family and friends. And that’s where Bardem’s talent comes in: The actor creates a perceptive, funny, deeply felt character using only his eyes and his facial expressions and his voice. Though it’s the extraordinary, Oscar-nominated make-up artistry that ages him, it’s Bardem who makes Ramón so much more than a tragic figure. He plays Ramón years after the accident that rendered his limbs useless, now living in Galicia with his brother José (Celso Bugallo), José’s wife Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who serves as Ramón’s caregiver, and their father Joaquín (Joan Dalmau). Ramón believes himself a burden to Manuela and his family, though he tries to conceal that with humor. Sometimes he lets the truth slip out. “When you can’t escape, and you constantly rely on everyone else, you learn to cry by smiling, you know?” he explains. He also upbraids a priest (Josep Maria Pou) armed with a Bible and a cache of trite platitudes.

In lobbying for his right to euthanasia, Ramón locates a pro-freedom of choice organization to back his case and meets with a supportive lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda, controlled but powerful), who is facing her own uncertain future of disability and dependency on caregivers. Ramón also touches the life of Rosa (the more emotive Lola Dueñas), a damaged woman who sees a kindness in Ramón she wants to save. Ramón’s relationship with these women is the soul of “Mar adentro,” and while there are elements of romance Amenábar keeps the film from straying into a melodrama overstuffed with grand proclamations about the redemptive powers of love and the value of life. He doesn’t force this angle; rather, Amenábar structures “Mar adentro” as a heartrending tale of Ramón’s struggle and the ways he changes Julia and Rosa’s lives. Each comes to love him, and each comes to understand that she cannot will him to live. All he asks is that both women accept him as he is; only one has the strength to do so.

Bardem intuits this about Ramón, his longing for a love great enough to set him free, and communicates churning oceans of meaning with his eyes and his expressions. This a performance of depth and feeling that defies explanation; it is magnetic and challenging and commanding. If we cannot agree with Ramón’s choice, Bardem ensures we see and understand his reasons. He makes us feel the despair of a life lived on everyone else’s terms.

*”Out to sea,” not “The Sea Inside,” the misleading English title