Seeing as Guillermo del Toro produced J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (El Orfanato)—and since his name is slathered all over the advertising—I think it’s only fair for us to run through the “essential elements of a del Toro movie checklist,” via The Devil’s Backbone and, to a lesser extent, Pan’s Labyrinth, to determine how much of an influence he may have had on the film. Do we have an imaginative, wide-eyed kid? Check. How about a contrasting creepy-looking kid? Check. A cavernous underground space, like a cave or a basement? Check, check. Really? What about a remote country house? Check. How about the accidental drowning of a child? Check. Well then, sounds like a del Toro film to me; all that seems to be missing is some mention of the Spanish Civil War.
Alackaday, there’s no backgrounded war in The Orphanage; in fact, there isn’t much sense of the setting at all, beyond the eponymous orphanage’s property lines at least. Without that sort of context, historical or otherwise, The Orphanage, to its detriment, is tough to pin-down up until the very end, if at all. When a young boy goes missing and his mother, Belén Rueda, comes to believe that he was taken by the ghost-orphans that may or may not haunt their home—a former orphanage—the film seems headed toward serving as an allegory about injured ghosts (of history? that might make sense) that need to be satisfied and put to rest so that future generations—our children’s—may thrive. It plays out as a classic tale of the return of the repressed, save for one little thing, that is: our hero, Rueda, hasn’t repressed anything! Any grievances these ghosts might have don’t have anything to do with Rueda who, while once a resident of the orphanage, was adopted and spirited away before the nefarious goings on, which might merit revenge, that we discover to have occurred.
The filmmakers seem to be trying to leave it up to us whether the film is meant to be taken symbolically or not, but if we were to take it that way it wouldn’t make any sense. So rather than function as ghastly historical allegory, then, I suppose The Orphanage shapes up to be, with a debt to 1961’s The Innocents, a mystery more psychological than paranormal, an expressionistic tale of a woman gone mad after the disappearance of her son. “I’m not crazy,” Rueda roundly declares, but it’s tough to believe her; after all, isn’t it perfectly plausible that a woman who has lost her dear child might just be imagining that her house is haunted by a gang of school-aged ghosts who’ve kidnapped him? More so than believing the ghosts to be real, anyway—no? As a psychic medium tells Rueda, “seeing is not believing, it’s the other way around.” With that maxim in mind, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, the film’s happy ending is thankfully only deceptively so (though to make it a question at all is arguably a cop out)—that is, a happy ending ought only to be seen by those who believe that they’re seeing a happy ending. But the filmmakers don’t seem to realize there’s two kinds of ambiguous filmmaking: the cleverly so, like the ending, and the slipshodily so, like the preceding eighty or so minutes.