Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

‘The Orphanage’: Reign of chills in Spain

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On ‘‘The Orphanage” 7-year-old son Simon (Roger Princep) has discovered new friends. He invites them to play and pretty soon disappears.
The Orphanage

Rated R. 100 minutes.

Adult psychological thriller.

Spanish, *subtitled.

Cast: Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Montserrat Carulla, Mabel Rivera, Andres Gertrudix.

Director: J.A. Bayona.

Unspeakable sorrows, with claws, hang in the air in J.A. Bayona’s outstanding psychological thriller ‘‘The Orphanage.” The movie is endorsed by Spanish director Guillermo del Toro (‘‘The Devil’s Backbone,” ‘‘Pan’s Labyrinth”), who certainly knows his way around a ghost or two. He vibrates to their sense of the unresolved. The movie has ghosts the way that ‘‘Peter Pan” has lost boys — victims, not monsters, communicating with the living in the only way they know how, in games.

‘‘The Orphanage” frames a story that seems the stuff of cheap spookery. A cultivated and loving couple, the Sanchezes, have purchased the long-abandoned Good Shepherd Orphanage, where the wife Laura (Belen Rueda) lived as a child. She and Carlos (Fernando Cavo) are renovating the old seacoast mansion to be a home for handicapped children.

Meanwhile, their 7-year-old son Simon (Roger Princep) has discovered new friends. He invites them to play and pretty soon disappears.

Months pass. The distraught parents have exhausted all possibilities on the emergency chain. They finally arrive at two competing specialists. Police psychiatrist Pilar (Mabel Rivera) will turn up all sorts of scary evidence, but the psychic Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) will ask the key question.

Despite long-buried memories, now surfacing, and a shaky hold on reality, Laura begins to rake the unseen for her child. She thinks she knows what the ghosts want. In a genuinely unnerving climax, she invites them to play, which leads to terrible tests of her courage.

Or not. What you see is not necessarily what lurks ready to scare your socks off — if this were a sock-scaring-off sort of movie. Like the best stories, ‘‘The Orphanage” is weaving on several levels, having leapt way beyond cheap spookery, perhaps from the very start. The moviemakers are mixing ancient crime and present tragedy, psychology and supernatural. Using little more than bumps in the night, they create an atmosphere of uncertainty and dread.

All this requires a lot of information to be loaded against the action, which accounts for the movie’s occasional lapses.

I’m not complaining. The moviemakers don’t go spineless at the penultimate moment. ‘‘The Orphanage” is perhaps one of the most devastating statements about the nature of guilt that movies have ever attempted. Just when grownups might think themselves proof against the usual Hollywood boo-fest, here comes del Toro and company, opening up whole new realms of horror and pity.