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At the Toronto International Film Festival, horror fans
usually set their sights on the popular Midnight Madness program, but there is
another showcase that covers all things dark and strange: the Vanguard section,
or as programmer Colin Geddes likes to call it, “Midnight Madness’ smarter
older sister.” One such sibling in this year’s lineup is Juan Carlos Medina’s
allegorical horror-thriller PAINLESS (known as INSENSIBLES internationally).
Set in Spain, the film follows two parallel storylines—one contemporary, and
one taking place during the Spanish Civil War.
Written by Medina and [REC]’s Luiso Berdejo and gorgeously
shot by Alejandro Martínez, PAINLESS, despite its grim subject matter, is
gorgeous to behold. The filmmakers understand that that there can be beauty in
horror, and the film’s lighting and composition are breathtaking from end to
end. The story starts in 1931, where we meet up with a group of children who
are impervious to any type of physical pain. Being kids, they like to test
their limits and basically be gross, so they get in the habit of setting
themselves on fire, eating their own flesh and pulling off each other’s
fingernails for giggles. This behavior seriously spooks the local townsfolk, so
the local doctor and nuns lock up the children permanently in straitjackets in
A few years later, a prominent Jewish doctor (Derek de Lint)
on the run from the Nazis joins the kids and tries to help them cope and
understand pain. Time runs out, though, and the hospital turns into a staging
ground for communists and then the fascists. The only boy to survive the war is
trapped like an animal, and is found years later by the fascist soldiers. He is
renamed Berkano (Tómas Lemarquis, also seen in this year’s ERRORS OF THE HUMAN
BODY) and becomes their chief torturer for the prison. These flashbacks are
told in conjunction with a present-day story of man trying to find out who his
birth parents are so he can get a life-saving bone marrow transplant.
PAINLESS’ story is similar in structure to THE GODFATHER
PART II; it’s not so much told with flashbacks as via parallel storylines. And
much like with Francis Coppola’s film, it is debatable whether this approach
works or not. On one hand, the modern story does give you a breather from the
intensity of the past events, but the switching to the present and then back
again makes it hard to get too emotionally involved with the characters.
Where the film succeeds brilliantly is in its realistic depiction
of a 20th-century tragedy (the Spanish Civil War) that has always been
overshadowed by WWII, which occurred pretty much at the same time. Medina
creates a very realistic universe of a real disease, during a real war,
depicting real tragedies that have left a deep scar on the Spanish people.
PAINLESS dances this fine line between these true historical events and moments
that fall into the realm of fantasy. One scene where a child operates on a
puppy without any anesthesia (it too feels no pain) is where the film slides
unfortunately into the fantasy realm. The majority of the film, though, is set
in the sobering real world of fascist Spain, and that is where the movie hits a
nerve. The film shows how authentic human monsters can become real-life Frankensteins
under the right conditions, and it’s within this realm that PAINLESS truly
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