Painless (2012)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“The children know no pain, thus making them very dangerous, and incapable of surviving in the outside world. We, therefore, must teach them what they do not know – we must teach them pain.”

Far from proposing some sort of child torture, the speaker Dr Holzmann (Derek de Lint), a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, is advocating a progressive programme of medical instruction and rehabilitation for his young patients, all afflicted with a condition (now known as Nishida syndrome) that makes them completely insensitive to pain. In this Holzmann is opposed to his Spanish colleague Dr Carcedo (Ramon Fontserè), who would prefer to see the children straitjacketed and locked away forever in his Canfranc asylum – for their own and society’s good. And so, as the Spanish Civil War gathers momentum outside the building’s Gothic walls, the same conflict is being waged in microcosm within. Neither doctor will survive the tumultuous sweep of history, while Benigno (Ilias and Mot Stothart), one of their most promising – or, as Carcedo believes, demonic – patients, will be abandoned to a different fate.

These decades of Spanish anguish are also the lost history of Dr David Martel (Àlex Brendemühl), whose ‘miraculous’ survival of a car accident in the present day has left him with a dead wife, a baby son born perilously premature, and the accidental discovery of a hidden cancer that is killing the good doctor fast. As David races to find a living relative suitable for a bone marrow transplant, he must confront the tangled story of his birth – a story that is somehow related to a terrifying state torturer (Tómas LeMarquis) from the Franco era.

Deftly leaping from past to present and back again, this astonishing and ambitious debut from Juan Carlos Medina shows a nation numbed to the pain of her own history, while unearthing unspeakable secrets buried in the rubble of forgotten times. As such, it falls into a tradition of Spanish films (think Victor de Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive or Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone/Pan’s Labyrinth diptych) that explore the horrors of their country’s twentieth-century experience through the tropes of horror cinema, with the monsters of history as much made as born.

Dr Holzmann’s words apply as much to the younger generation of the present as to his own wards in the Thirties – but if this film shares to a degree in Holzmann’s didactic fervour, it suggests in its troubling and highly emotive final sequence that sometimes our ongoing survival can be best assured in pains never taught and stories never told. The result is a breathless drama that interrogates the paradoxes of Spain’s genetic and circumstantial heritage, and teases out the eternal struggle between freedom and repression, memory and oblivion.

© Anton Bitel