Re:View – ‘Painless’
When everyone else is busy producing sequels and reboots, you can rely on Spain to create genuinely original new genre films. The latest to appear as a subtitled DVD is this, which could be described as a Catalan ‘Devil’s Backbone’ – although it’s not quite in the same league.But if it falls short of providing the requisite thrills, it scores high on fresh ideas.
It’s interesting to see how countries tackle wars in their recent histories. Although ‘Apocalypse Now’ is one of the greatest war films ever made, Hollywood was never comfortable addressing the issue of Vietnam (although they’ve fared better on Iraq), and their view of WWII has been somewhat revisionist. British post-war conflict films were always overly patriotic too, while the Japanese film industry remained in denial. The Germans, Dutch and French have all made powerful realist films about recent conflicts. The Spanish, however, have chosen fables and fantasies to study the untold stories of the civil war and its following years under fascist rule, and it has proven a brilliant way of handling awkward subject matter.
At first you don’t see the connection in ‘Painless’ (‘Insensibles’). In 1931 it’s discovered that some village children have inherited a unique genetic trait that makes them impervious to pain. This means they’re a danger to themselves and others, and they’re promptly taken away from their families and quarantined. As the years pass, the isolated children are studied by a kindly Jewish-German doctor who protects them.
Meanwhile, in the present day, a surgeon has a car accident in which his wife dies, although they manage to save the baby inside her. However, his terminal cancer is revealed in the process of healing, so the surgeon needs to convince his parents to grant him a bone-marrow transplant, and his journey takes him back to the monastery where the children were once kept…
The two-time-frame narrative fractures the narrative, but it’s an intriguing watch because the idea starts standing in for what happened to Spain in 1939 and afterwards. Is this a fantasy or a re-examination of the fascist legacy? Both, it turns out. The film stumbles a little at the rushed climax, but better an original flawed work than another carbon copy.