Hey, Dad, do you know what happens to owls when they die?
A Review of Biutiful
**Spoilers Ahead – Read with Caution**
It’s not a grave, it’s a niche. It’s a seemingly innocuous piece of dialogue, a clarification on the not-so-final resting spot of our protagonist’s father – a father he never knew, a father who fled Spain as a political exile only to die in Mexico of pneumonia and be shipped back to Barcelona to be tucked away by his widowed wife in a niche. But it’s also symbolic of the niche this family has carved out for themselves over the generations where fathers are sent to early graves. Progress and globalization threaten this niche – a mall is to be built, the niche destroyed, and the corpse cremated – as do calamities and ailments including cancer both literally and figuratively.
Our protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem in a devastating performance) is trying to make do in a Barcelona that is coming apart at the seams. He deals in knock-off goods and illegal workers. He’s also trying to raise his two young children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estralla – both naturalistic and deserving of sympathy) while being estranged from his bipolar wife (Maricel Alvarez in a wonderfully complex and flighty performance in perfect pitch through all her mood swings) who is sleeping with his opportunistic and corrupt brother (Eduard Fernandez). But in the all the varying shades and undulations of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s maddeningly complex and perversely intertwined world, nothing in what it seems on the surface. Continue reading →
Laura (Belen Rueda) returns to the orphanage she spent time in as a child with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and little boy Simon (Roger Princep) in hopes of re-establishing it as seaside retreat for children with disabilities only to find there may be some former residents who never left. In Juan Antonio Bayona’s tightly wound “The Orphanage” nothing is as it seems and child’s play takes on sinister overtones.
Bayona belongs to this new wave of Spanish-language directors (most notably Del Torro and Amenabar) who excel when it comes to creating moody atmospheric tales of the supernatural with Catholic overtones. Whereas “Pan’s Labyrinth” took a dark fantasy approach to a Passion Play, “The Orphanage” is closer to the classic haunted house themes of “The Others” as it attempts to give a sentimental view of life after death. Be warned, “The Orphanage” is often more sad than scary, and those not familiar with Catholic mysticism might find things a bit hard to believe. As goes the film’s mantra…Believe, Then You Will See. Those with the patience and the heart will be greatly rewarded as the audience doesn’t necessarily have to Believe to relate to the characters who do.
Working from refined “less is more” psychological horror templates, Bayona delivers the formulaic goods. There will be a simplistic but heartfelt exploration of grief. There will be allusions to classic literature (in this case a very nicely done “Peter Pan” as Catholic allegory motif). There will be uncovering dark secrets from the past. There will be precocious children with spooky imaginary friends. There will be creaking set designs and manipulative sound effects to create “gotcha!” moments. There will be a creepy medium (an excellent Geraldine Chaplin) brought in for a séance. And there will be a twist at the end.
Thankfully, there is also a great performance from Belen Rueda as Laura. She gives a compelling portrayal of a woman devoured by her loss and achingly desperate for the truth no matter how horrific that truth might be. One must have a cold heart not to find sympathy with her, and even the most hardened audience member will find it hard not to feel that stray tear form in the corner of their trembling eye when all is revealed. “The Orphanage” offers nothing terribly new, but sometimes the same old ghost story presented in a beautiful way makes for the best type of cold-rainy-day entertainment.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database: