Orphanage, The

Cannes Film Fest 2007–One of the highlights of this year's Cannes Festival's Critics Week, the Spanish film “The Orphanage” actually benefits from familiarity with psychological thrillers and ghost stories involving children. It's impossible to watch the picture without thinking of Henry James's mystery novel “Turn of the Screw,” which was made into a decent film, “The Innocents,” starring Deborah Kerr, or more recently “The Others,” in both its Spanish or American (Nicole Kidman)versions.

“The Orphanage” arrived in Cannes with the pedigree of Oscar-nominated director Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan's Labyrinth”) as exec-producer and presenter. The film that marks the feature debut of a talented Spaniard, Juan Antonio Bayona, working from a screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez. I didn't have press notes when I saw the picture and hence don't know much about the writer or director's backgrounds.

“The Orphanage” (not a particularly appetizing title) might as well have been made by Del Toro, who has established himself as a master of the hybrid of horror-fantasy stories, like “Pan's Labyrinth,” which centers on a girl, or his previous, equally terrific “Devil's Backbone,” about a boy. The two films are very much companion pieces.

Like its predecessors, a good deal of “The Orphanage” chilling effectiveness derives from the female performances, particularly by Helen Rueda, a brilliant actress whose work is little known in the U.S.

In the prologue, set on the Spanish coast, we see Laura playing with other children just before she is about to be adopted. The saga then jumps ahead to 30 years later, when we encounter Laura (Rueda) as a mature, beautiful femme. Accompanied by her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayas) and their young son Simon (Roger Princep), she has returned to the orphanage with the goal of turning it into a hospitable place for disabled children.

Like mother, like son. Inexplicably, Simon begins to draw creepy images of a bizarre figure that hails back to Laura's past (or rather memories). An encounter with a mysterious social worker named Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) reveals to Simon that he is an adopted kid himself. Upset and unsettled by this information, Simon confronts his mother about her silence before running away from her.

Firmly believing that he's alive, Laura then seeks help from a psychologist, Pilar, (Mabel Ribera), and even a psychic, Aurora, played by American Geraldine Chaplin. The presence of Chaplin offers an indirect link to another terrifically creepy Spanish film, “Spirit of the Beehive,” by Victor Erice.

As the institution's opening day draws near, tensions build within the nuclear family. Always the skeptic, Carlos holds that Simon is making everything up in a desperate bid for attention. In contrast, Laura slowly becomes convinced that something long-hidden and terrible is lurking in the big old house, something waiting to emerge and inflict damage on her loved ones.

In the film's central, nocturnal chapters, Laura searches the house, an iconic element in such Gothic sagas, going all the way back to Hitchcock's “Rebecca.” She becomes convinced that there is a link between Simon and her own past at the orphanage.

Is she a living ghost A mentally disturbed mother who can't come to terms with loss and grief An obsessive mother determined to retrieve her son at all costs, even as he might be an imaginary creature.

Unless you're present on the set, it's hard to know what was Del Toro's precise contribution, but suffice is to say that the film boasts several dazzling sequences that he himself could have directed. There's grand visual style at work, one that serves the creepy story and perhaps goes beyond into the realm of surreal hallucinatory cinema, for which Spanish directors seem to have special emotional and artistic affinity.