Foreign

The Orphanage (2007)

Film #7: The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

The Orphanage is a 2007 Spanish-Mexican film written by Sergio G. Sánchez and directed by J.A. Bayona, his debut feature film. It’s considered by many a horror film, but it also borrows heavily from the fantasy genre, which isn’t surprising given that it’s co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, director of the fantastically fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth from the previous year. Protagonist Laura (played by Belén Rueda) returns to the orphanage she grew up in with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their seven-year-old adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep). Simón doesn’t know that he’s adopted, or that he has HIV – two secrets that an elderly social worker (Montserrat Carulla) threatens to reveal after she visits Laura one day. Shortly after this encounter, Simón disappears, and Laura is driven to despair.

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The White Ribbon (2009)

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is nominated for Best Foreign Picture at the 82nd Academy Awards. Perhaps no other film released in 2009 better reinforces the perceived dichotomy between art films and entertainment. While The White Ribbon is gaining critical praise, the average movie-goer is unlikely to find enjoyment in it. For one, the film is in black and white. Though cinematographer Christian Berger presents the grayscale image (originally filmed in color) beautifully, lack of color in a film has become a dispelling asset to modern film-goers.

The fact that the picture is in German, requiring the audience member to read subtitles during the entirety of the film, will also stifle the modern media consumer’s desire to see this film. However, more important than any technical aspect of the film is Haneke’s refusal to give the audience member special privileges in his film. In the age of Avatar, movie goers seem to praise action and excitement over all else, and certainly desire an informed position while they watch. This is not the position that Haneke permits.

Instead, when the characters in The White Ribbon go behind closed doors to discuss something, we do not get to accompany them. We are left waiting for them to exit, and must infer what their conversation consisted of. Though the narration provided by Ernst Jacobi tells us about plenty of incidents, we rarely see them – we are no more informed than recipients of village gossip. Haneke does not show us favor, and in an era where such treatment is rare, perhaps we should be grateful for that.

We should be grateful that Haneke trusts us to be intelligent consumers. The White Ribbon never gets frantic, and instead maintains a very deliberate pace as it looks at the denizens of an early 20th century German village. The children here are the focal point; they sometimes seem like they’re from Village of the Damned, but see how the 4 year old doesn’t understand death. He’s still just a child, but perhaps not for long. His father explains death to him, and it may very well be the end of his innocence. The children examined in this film will grow up to be adults during the Third Reich, and Haneke certainly implies that most if not all of them will participate in Hitler’s regime. Thus, The White Ribbon is a look at where such evilness begins. Certainly we’ve all wondered how Nazis came into their own; Haneke attempts to explain it.

His answer appears to lay blame on restrictive adults that instill great guilt into children for natural masturbation, or who appear on the outset to be fine individuals only to show in private how abusive and parochial they are. I’m not sure how well this argument should be taken, as any film attempting to explain the origins of the most destructive era in human history will certainly be controversial. At the very least, though, Haneke has crafted a wonderfully compelling story that raises plenty of questions for discussion.

The entire movie has an ominous feel to it, from its bleak title cards to certain masking that Haneke employs. We’re not really given someone to identify with – the closest thing to a hero is the schoolteacher played by Christian Friedel, but even he is less than entirely admirable. The aforementioned cinematography is fantastic, and makes the entire movie feel like it came from an ancient photo album. The performances are great all around, including talented children actors, something that is always hard to find.

The White Ribbon is not a movie for everyone. It is slow-paced and ambiguous, leaving the audience in the dark much more than most viewers are accustomed to. However, it is also a superbly told story that looks at a deceptively simple time in world history, and creates great suspense as it meanders around its well constructed setting. Anyone who wishes that more movies made them think would be remiss to overlook Haneke’s The White Ribbon.

Final rating: 7/10

–James A. Janisse