"There is a great story in here somewhere.. but the combination of the two narratives - presented as tonally and visually distinct from one another - does not entirely work."

Spanish horror films continue to find rich pickings in Spain's dark past with Painless offering yet another fantasy-laden take on the divisions of the Civil War seen through the eyes of children. To be fair, the film shows originality in its emphasis on the often-ignored events that transpired in the aftermath of Franco's victory - as one character observes, people think that the Civil War was the worst of it, but far darker things were done later on in the name of 'cleansing' the State (the torture and murder of those on the losing side, and the stealing of their children).

Here the theme of stolen children predates the Civil War - in early 1930s rural Catalonia, an unexplained neurological disorder has rendered a group of children impervious to pain. Deciding that this makes them a danger to themselves and others, the authorities send them to the Canfranc asylum to be kept under lock and key, trussed up like baby Hannibal Lectors. Two children are singled out for our attention, Inés (played by Bruna Montoto as a child and Liah O' Prey as an adolescent) and Benigno (Ilias and Mot Stothart), whose friendship sustains them during the early years of their captivity.

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The arrival of a German doctor (Derek de Lint) sets up certain genre expectations of Nazi experimentation, but Dr Holzmann (a Jewish refugee fleeing events in Germany) intends to rehabilitate the children by teaching them empathy and making them understand pain - an experiment of nature versus nurture that has mixed results. But events take on a darker hue when the Civil War erupts and the asylum is first taken over by the Republicans and then the victorious Right. Canfranc becomes a prison notorious for torture, in which the now-adult Benigno (Tómas Lemarquis)(renamed Berkano by his keepers) plays a disturbing part.

The historical narrative (it spans the 1930s to the 1960s) is interwoven with a present-day story of neurosurgeon David Martel (Àlex Brendemühl) who, after surviving a car crash that kills his wife, is found to have a rare cancer that requires a bone marrow transplant from a biological match. This leads David's parents (Àngels Poch and the ever-reliable Juan Diego) to reveal that he is not their biological child - he was taken from a prisoner in Canfranc in the 1960s.

There is a great story in here somewhere, and some interesting themes are explored (eg nature versus nurture, history being (re)written by the victors, and the insidiousness of Spain's post-dictatorship pact of silence), but the combination of the two narratives - presented as tonally and visually distinct from one another - does not entirely work. The broad brushstrokes of the contemporary sections (some quite clunky foreshadowing and the actors not given much to work with in terms of characterisation) and the descent into a more stereotypical and full-on horror in the historical strand - including Benigno's transformation into a silent 'monster', and instances of viciously nasty violence that jar with the tone of fairytale gothicism established in the early part of the film - also undermine a potentially good yarn that is nonetheless told with moments of visual flair.

Reviewed on: 04 Sep 2014
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Painless packshot
Gothic horror entwining the story in 1930s Catalonia of a group of children who cannot feel pain, with a man searching for his biological parents in the present day.
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Director: Juan Carlos Medina

Writer: Juan Carlos Medina, Luiso Berdejo

Starring: Tómas Lemarquis, Alex Brendemühl, Derek De Lint

Year: 2012

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: France, Spain, Portugal

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