'Orphanage' Tugs at Mystery of a Missing Child

Article excerpt

HOLLYWOOD -- "The Orphanage" made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, and as its unsettling story of mothers, children and ghosts unfolded on the screen, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona heard a noise in the dark that gave him a panic.

"I heard people laughing," Bayona recalls. "Then we realized it was nervous laughter. They were so scared they were laughing at themselves. Then we knew it was OK."

"The Orphanage," originally released as "El Orfanato," opens in limited release in the U.S. on Friday and has been tapped as Spain's foreign-language film submission for the 80th annual Academy Awards. That could help it appeal to audiences who typically recoil at anything perceived as a genre film.

Reviewers have lauded the film's tale of grief, faith and mystery at a seaside orphanage, and, in Spain, market research found that the film received its highest marks from women older than 40.

"We've made a horror movie for grannies," says first-time screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez. "Seriously, the film is difficult to describe to people. It's not a drama; it's not a horror film. But it is also both. The best thing is not to try too hard to describe it and to let people go into a theater and watch it unfold."

What exactly the audience sees on the screen, however, is a matter of debate. The film tells the tale of Laura (Belen Rueda of "The Sea Inside"), who spent part of her childhood at Good Shepherd Orphanage. Now, as a wife and mother, she has returned to the shuttered old manor to reopen it with her husband as a clinic for ill and disabled youngsters.

Her 7-year-old son (Roger Princep) is spooked by the place. When he disappears on the clinic's opening day, Laura looks for him among the phantoms that are in her house or in her mind.

Are the ghostly visions real or a product of grief? That is up to the audience.

"That is what makes it such a special film," says producer Guillermo del Toro, the filmmaker who has shown a flair for fantastic tales with "Pan's Labyrinth" (Oscar nomination for original screenplay) and "Hellboy."

Del Toro's guidance was strong, but the film belongs to Bayona and Sanchez. The writer believes in ghosts, but the director does not, so the story embraces the supernatural while the film remains rooted in reality. Early on, the pair plotted out the movie, scene by scene, in two rows of note cards. The notes on the left were the ghost story while the notes on the right were the drama.

"We really had such a painful time during the script process," Bayona says. "We have a story that you could read as a classical ghost story, but at the same time -- and I think this is a very (Roman) Polanski idea -- you could read the story as a real drama about a woman who is losing her mind, who cannot deal with the idea of losing a child. This is a perfect puzzle where at the end all the pieces fit together."

As a child growing up in Barcelona, what Bayona heard but couldn't see scared him the most. With "The Orphanage," he tapped that primal terror, but he wanted a story too.

"I was trying to focus in those psychological aspects like 'The Shining' or 'Rosemary's Baby' that work on that level. They are ghost stories or horror stories, but at the same time they are stories about the point of view of the main character. …