Director Juan Carlos Medina unflinchingly delves into the darkest corners of Spain’s past with his debut feature ‘Painless’, a story with two concurrent strands: one set in the present day, the other in the early 1930s, with the institutionalisation of a group of children afflicted with a bizarre condition; the inability to feel pain.
Medina weaves these two storylines together skilfully, cutting between the modern-day plight of workaholic surgeon David (Àlex Brendemühl) and that of the young Benigno, (Ilias Stothart and Mot Harris Dunlop Stothart, respectively) a remarkably intuitive child with no concept of physical pain, who is confined to a cell, muzzled and straitjacketed – all in the interest of ‘curing’ his disease.
After the sudden loss of his pregnant wife in a devastating car crash, David finds himself diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer requiring an immediate bone marrow donation if he’s to survive. His subsequent appeal to his parents results in the discovery that he is, in fact, adopted – the catalyst for the search for his biological parents; a search that’s inextricably linked to the fate of Benigno.
Much like Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, ‘Painless’ has an air of magical realism and deals with the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, combining elements of horror and the fantastic to create a dreamlike (and at times nightmarish) sense of atmosphere. It’s beautifully shot, and director Medina shows plenty of flair with the use of unexpected angles, woozy defocused backgrounds, somnambulant aerial sequences – and artful obstruction in the more gory scenes, leaving the violence largely to the audience’s imagination.
Medina also tackles the thorny issue of the legacy of the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship – the secrets, the unmarked graves, the fractured families – with commendable frankness, backed up by excellent performances from the entire cast, including the young actors.
I felt that the plot began to lose its way slightly at the denouement, with an ending that seemed to rely on too many improbabilities to be completely plausible, and that lost – at least for me – some of the intended emotional resonance as a result. However, ‘Painless’ is nevertheless a visually stunning film with an engrossing story – and certainly an impressive debut from this promising director.
'Painless' is screening at the 56th BFI London Film Festival, with one remaining screening on Monday 15th October. For more info and tickets, visit bfi.org.uk/lff.