Painless (Insensibles): London Film Festival Review

Gothic fairy tale digs up the skeletons of recent European history

The impressive horror fantasy debut combines a contemporary thriller plot with flashbacks to the Spanish Civil War.

Children with freakish superpowers. Renegade Nazi scientists. A remote prison-like orphanage perched high on a rocky peak. The ingredients to Franco-Spanish director Juan Carlos Medina’s handsome debut feature, which screened at the London Film Festival earlier this week, read like a mouth-watering checklist of classic Euro-horror tropes.

Co-scripted by Luiso Berdejo, who also co-wrote the well-regarded Spanish shocker [REC], this superior genre piece has the pedigree and the high-gloss production values to reach a readymade theatrical audience around the globe. With smart marketing, the historical and political subtext may also pull in a broader range of mainstream movie fans.

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The story runs in two parallel strands. In small-town Catalonia in the 1930s, a group of children are found to share a rare medical condition that prevents them from feeling pain, leading the local elders to banish them indefinitely to a fortress-like monastery high in the Pyrenees. In the present day, busy neurosurgeon David (Àlex Brendemühl) survives a dynamically staged car accident, only to discover he is suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. The sole possible cure is a bone marrow transfer from his biological parents, with whom he has strained relations.

These two plots begin to converge after David’s parents reveal for the first time that he was adopted. This shock disclosure throws light on a lost chapter in the Spanish Civil War, when the monastery is taken over by rival factions - first by armed Republican leftists, then by General Franco’s fascist army, both of whom prove equally ruthless. The dark decades that follow include torture, rape, execution, creepy medical experiments and other horrors. While some of the children grow up and escape, the scarred and brutalized Berkano (Tómas Lemarquis) is exploited as a useful monster by Franco’s thuggish regime.

Dark fantasy films that revisit the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of children have become something of a stand-alone genre over the last decade, spearheaded by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Medina’s contribution to this nightmarish strain of magical realism is more expansive in scope, updating the story to include some uncomfortable, half-buried truths from Spain’s post-war period. It is also beautifully filmed in silvery, wintry hues and dazzling aerial shots.

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Surprisingly, the rare congenital condition at the heart of Painless really exists – it is called Nishida Syndrome - though it also serves here as a metaphor for the numbing of the Spanish people to their bloody history.  Franco’s mass murder of his political enemies, and the state-endorsed adoption of their orphaned children, is the authentic horror story that inspired Medina. Most Spanish viewers will recognise the subtext, foreign audiences may not.

Either way, no background reading is required, as Medina’s grim fairy tale owes more to myth and archetype than historical realism. The flame-grilled finale in the ruined monastery is an exercise in pure gothic melodrama, equal parts Frankenstein and Phantom of the Opera, with perhaps a sly nod to Freddy Kruger from the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Like most horror movies, Painless is also unapologetically pulpy. The characters are two-dimensional at best, with no clear focus for audience sympathy, while the overheated plot is thick with improbable coincidences and loose ends. But these flaws come with the territory, of course. Within the rules of the genre, Medina has still made an impressive, imaginative and commendably ambitious debut.

Venue: London Film Festival screening, October 15

Production companies: Les Films d’Antoine, Tobina Film, Fado Filmes, A Contracorriente Films, Canal+, Cofimage, Eurimages, ICIC, Ibermedia, ICAA, Roxbury Pictures

Producers: Adolfo Blanco, François Cognard, M.A. Faura, Antoine Simkine

Cast: Àlex Brendemühl, Derek de Lint, Irene Montalà, Tómas Lemarquis, Félix Gómez

Director: Juan Carlos Medina

Writers: Luiso Berdejo, Juan Carlos Medina

Cinematographer: Alejandro Martínez   

Editor: Pedro Ribeiro

Music: Johan Söderqvist  

Sales agent: Elle Driver

Rating TBC, 100 minutes