Painless (Insensibles): Toronto Review

A crafty horror-thriller where history hurts more than a gut punch.

Spanish director Juan Carlos Medina makes his feature debut in this historical horror-thriller that lifts elements from the dark decades of Francisco Franco’s extensive reign.

TORONTO -- The wounds inflicted by Spain’s long and violent history of Fascism are given a powerful allegorical remedy in Painless (Insensibles), an impressive and absorbing debut feature from writer-director Juan Carlos Medina.

Taking cues from Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the film convincingly lifts elements from the dark decades of Francisco Franco’s extensive reign, blending them into a phantasmagorical suspense story involving children who are mysteriously resistant to physical pain, even if they remain all too human. Cleverly constructed in a series of successive flashbacks and guided by a steady directorial hand, this Toronto Vanguard premiere should see mucho fest and arthouse play, sealing Medina’s reputation as a talent to watch.

A haunting opening scene set in 1931 shows a little girl, Ines (Liah O’Prey), setting herself on fire and hardly batting an eyelash. Cut to the present day, where hard-working neurosurgeon, David (Alex Brendemuhl), gets in a terrible car accident, his wife instantly killed but his 6-month-old unborn child miraculously surviving.

The script (co-written with Luiso Berdejo, [Rec]) maintains this crosscutting structure up to the very last sequence, oscillating between scenes set before, during and after the Second World War, and ones of David digging into his family’s shady backstory—an act prompted by the revelation that he has a fatal form of Lymphoma requiring an immediate bone marrow transplant. While the back and forth initially feels systematic, the dueling plots are elaborately enough intertwined to keep things compelling, with the past and present eventually melding together as David uncovers the truth about his origins.

If the contemporary sequences move along in the swift manner of an icy Euro thriller, the flashbacks have the creepy, unsettling spirit of a gothic fable: Along with several other children from her Catalonian village, Ines is rounded up and sent to a secluded hilltop asylum, where a doctor (Roman Fontsere) keeps each child isolated in a separate cell. There Ines meets the troubled introvert, Benigno (Ilias Stothart), who’s first seen casually chewing on his own flesh, but eventually transforms into a skilled and thoughtful student under the guise of Professor Holzman (Derek de Lint), a German-Jewish scientist seeking refuge from the Nazi regime.

It’s during these asylum scenes that Painless truly comes into its own, drawing numerous parallels between the self-anesthetising capabilities of the children and the domination of the Fascists over a period that stretched from the Spanish Civil War to the 1960s, when Franco’s dictatorship was comfortably installed in power. While certain gorier moments—including a child’s worst nightmare: the dissection of a puppy—have a stomach-turning quality to them, what’s much more disturbing is the idea that “insensitive” kids like Ines or Benigno could become the ideal puppets for a regime that was hell-bent on staying in power.

Cinematographer Alejando Martinez (Blackout) captures such scenes in eerie, sepia-toned compositions, while the modern-day parts are filled with cold colors and minimalist interiors that reflect David’s own inscrutable persona. Indeed, while it’s often hard to read what the man is feeling (which is no fault of the well-cast Brendemuhl), it’s only when the walls (literally) come down during the film’s emotionally-charged finale that what at first seemed to be a story of cold-blooded survival delivers another message entirely: Even the painless are not immune from suffering.

Production companies: Les Films d’Antoine, Tobina Film, Roxbury Pictures, Fado Filmes, A Contracorriente Films, in association with Backup Films
Cast: Alex Brendemuhl, Tomas Lemarquis, Ilias Stothart, Mot Stothart, Derek de Lint, Ramon Fonstere, Silvia Bel, Bea Segura, Lia O’Prey
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Screenwriters: Juan Carlos Medina, Luiso Berdejo, based on an original idea by Juan Carlos Medina
Producers: Antoine Simkine, Francois Cognard, Miguel A. Faura
Executive producers: Manuel Monzon, Isaac Torras, Goncalo Galvao Teles
Director of photography: Alejando Martinez
Production designer: Inigo Navarro
Costume designer: Ariadna Papio
Music: Johan Soderqvist
Editor: Pedro Reibeiro
Visual effects: Luis Tinoco
Sales: Elle Driver
No rating, 101 minutes.