LeftLion Review: Painless (2013)

Painless (2013)
Dir. Juan Carlos Medina

Painless is a film highly informed by the work of Guillermo Del Toro; it has the same meticulous period detail touched with dark bouts of magical realism; the same interest in the brutality of Fascist regimes, particularly that of Franco's Spain; and it continues the rich Spanish cinematic tradition of a fascination with children and the ghosts of the past. Working backward and forward through time, the film begins in 1931 and returns periodically to the present day. Its central idea revolves around the discovery of a group of young children who appear to be completely impervious to physical pain. Because the children have become dangerous to those around them, replete with horrific burns and broken bones, they are taken from their parents and straitjacketed, put indefinitely into solitary confinement in a godforsaken asylum. A medical team is there to learn more about these children, particularly one young boy who shows a capacity for both serene tenderness and shocking violence. Deeply involving, the film intertwines the past and present with a well-paced dual structure, connecting the desperate search of a modern Spanish doctor, David, to the events of recent history. He is told of the war years: 'Forgetting is what matters today', and he is advised repeatedly against digging into the past.

Of course, the children's 'unknown affliction' has both wonderful and terrifying capacities; under the darkening fog of the late 1930's, the concept of an ubermensch soldier is close to the surface of our thoughts. There is no overt suggestion that the children's powers are to be exploited, but had the experiments gone uninterrupted by the breakout of the Spanish Civil War, one can only guess at the dark purposes they may have been used for. Over the course of Franco's regime and the occupation of the Nazis, the asylum's increasingly wretched conditions and litany of cruelty sees an innocent child make a terrifying transformation. The character Berkano's inability to feel – or understand – pain may seem supernatural, but the true horror lies in a very human complicity with violence and oppression. The past haunts and informs the present day - the perverted genesis of David's family history comes to bear on his life in hideous ways. The corrupted ideologies of Fascism and Nazism breed monstrosity in many forms, and forgetting does not excuse or erase it.

As it transpires, the brooding atmospherics of the opening descend into a hellish finale, something of an unfortunate and overwrought conclusion that feels at odds with the subtlety and mood of most of the film. Be that as it may, it is a truly engaging story; an impressive homage to the tradition of European horror. Painless is alive with political allegory that may not be novel, but is still prescient and intensely watchable.


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