Spain / France / Portugal
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Produced by Adolfo Blanco, François Cognard, Miguel Angel Faura, Luís Galvão Teles and Antoine Simkine for Les Films d’Antoine, Tobina Film, Fado Filmes, A Contracorriente Films, Canal+, Cofimage, Eurimages, Generalitat de Catalunya – Institut Català de les Indústries Culturals (ICIC), Ibermedia, Instituto de la Cinematografía y de las Artes Audiovisuales (ICAA), Roxbury
Story and screenplay: Luiso Berdejo, Juan Carlos Medina
Music: Johan Söderqvist
Cinematographer: Alejandro Martínez
Editor: Pedro Ribiero
Art director: Romina Hausmann, Iñigo Navarro
Cast: Alex Brendemühl (David), Tómas Lemarquis (Berkano), Ilias Stothart (Benigno niño), Mot Harris Dunlop Stothart (Benigno adolescente), Derek de Lint (Dr. Holzmann), Ramon Fontserè (Dr. Carcedo), Sílvia Bel (Judith), Bea Segura (Magdalena), Juan Diego (Adán Martel mayor), Félix Gómez (Adán Martel joven), Irene Montalà (Anaïs), Àngels Poch (Clara Martel), Ariadna Cabrol (María), Bruna Montoto (Inés niña), Liah O’Prey (Inés adolescente), Alícia Pérez (Madre de Benigno), Joan Carreras (Capitán Torrenegra), Bernd-Uwe Reppenhagen (Hauptmann Hoth), Lluís Soler (Iván Barkos), Genís Hernàndez (José Barkos (voice)), Joan Frank Charansonnet (Padre Aymerich), Xicu Masó (Alcalde), Jaume Ulled (Maestro), Anna Alarcón (Montsalvat), Aina Román (Beatriz), Francesca Piñón (Enfermera veterana), Stefan Rudolf (Oficial SD), Marc Rius (Médico joven
Pierre Livet Pierre Livet (Prisionero francés), Richard Felix (Prisionero inglés), Guillem Motos (Prisionero 3), Pablo Colau (José Barkos), Olga Bernardo (Taxista), Xeui Jiménez (Campesino indignado), Antonio Llorca (Campesino), José Comisario (Campesino camioneta), Jessica Hernández (Enfermera morena), Lena Ana María Tillman (Enfermera), Norbert Becker (Agente Gestapo), Marc Jean Wernli (Agente SD), Cristian Andrade (Miliciano), Luisa Casas (Abuela de Beatriz)
Àlex Brendemühl plays David, a successful surgeon who is left a widower when his wife is killed in a car accident caused when he blacks out at the wheel. Scans reveal that he is suffering from a tumor in his brain, and the only hope he has of surviving is to undergo a full bone marrow transplant. This can only be carried out if he receives a donation from a blood relation, but when he asks his parents they reveal that he wasn’t actually their child. Instead, he had been stolen away as a baby from a military prison where he worked and his biological father was Berkano (Tómas Lemarquis), one of a group of children who had been imprisoned and grown up there because of their inability to feel pain, thus making them dangerous to other people.
The flood of thrillers and horror films coming out of Spain does seem to have died down a tad in recent years; or maybe it’s more a case that they’re still being made but we’re just not getting to see them. One of the most recent to emerge in English friendly format is Painless, directed by debutante Juan Carlos Medina, a film that acts as a handy summary of all the positives and negatives to be found in Spanish genre cinema. It’s super stylish, very clever and notably ambitious; but it also ties itself up in knots, losing its focus as the plot progresses and increasingly unlikely plot elements are introduced.
Painless is basically made up of two parallel narratives, one set in the past and one in the present, both of which come together at the climax. As such, it’s half a great film. The part of the story which deals with Berkano’s history – his separation from his parents, forced solitary confinement, treatment by an experiment psychologist (Derek de Lint) and gradual development into an animalistic torturer for the fascist regime – is gripping, fascinating and moving. The modern day elements, however, are deadly dull. Brendemühl is barely a character and his quest for the truth about his origins is simply never particularly interesting. To put it bluntly, it is a film which over-reaches itself; it’s ambition should be applauded, but in trying to do too much it blunts its own effectiveness. It’s a real shame as it has an intriguing premise, is immaculately photographed (by Alejandro Martínez of Hierro) and has enough ideas to fill five other productions.
Review by Matt Blake, 2016
What the critics said
“Debuting helmer Juan Carlos Medina propels his intriguing concept to its tragically inevitable denouement with considerable mastery. Unsparing but not indiscriminate in dishing out gore and suffering, he endlessly toys with audience sensibilities while intellectually probing the anesthetizing effects of war and dictatorships. Pic reps a choice item for genre fests and buyers of classy Euro-horror.” Maggie Lee, Variety.
“Dark fantasy films that revisit the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of children have become something of a stand-alone genre over the last decade, spearheaded by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Medina’s contribution to this nightmarish strain of magical realism is more expansive in scope, updating the story to include some uncomfortable, half-buried truths from Spain’s post-war period. It is also beautifully filmed in silvery, wintry hues and dazzling aerial shots.” Stephen Dalton, Hollywood Reporter.
“It was a mixture of themes that fascinated me. I’ve had a very religious education in Spain in the eighties, went to a school run by nuns for years. It was very disciplinarian. Today I’m really agnostic but I have kept a keen interest in matters of religion. So when I was in university I studied Buddhism and the first question of Siddhartha is why is there pain? – it’s a bit like the equivalent of the Catholic fundamental question why is there evil? I wanted to tell a story about the relationship between the ability to feel pain and humanity. But I wanted to keep the story purely visceral, find a purely bodily incarnation of this theme. I’m a huge fan of Cronenberg too so I wanted to tell this story with bodies, not with words.
I also wanted to talk about the lost memory of those troubled years in Spain, my own family has a very bloody history that traces back to The Civil War. So when I heard about Nishida’s syndrome, the syndrome of congenital insensitivity to pain, that was it. It was the perfect metaphor… The exterior is a Napoleonic era fort in the Pyrenees that we CGI-extended, the interior is totally built in a set in Barcelona. So the place was a total creation. I wanted something high in the mountains and carceral. Old psychiatric wards used to be more like prisons really. They didn’t know how to treat people so they locked them up.
… There’s a branch of psychoanalysis called psycho-genealogy and it pretends to explain people’s ailments by tracing them back to unresolved questions in the story of their past relatives. It’s the same with families, and ultimately, countries. What’s unresolved keeps festering inside and haunting the future. Unlike Germany in Spain, the bad guys won The Civil War, which was one of the cruelest the world has ever known. There was never an atonement, there were never consequences for the criminals. The modern Spanish state has been built on a pact of silence, a slab of oblivion has been thrown over these questions. A few years ago the career of world famous judge Baltasar Garzon was ended because a fascist (should we say alt-right?) group Manos Limpias attacked him in the tribunal for putting into question the law of amnesty that does not allow families of relatives executed in mass graves by the dictatorship to recover the bones of their relatives. A few days ago Rajoy quoted Lorca in a speech (about the Barcelona attacks) and people were screaming “sacalo de la cuneta primero!!” (get him out of the ditch where your predecessors shot him first!!). My great grandmother was a close collaborator of The Pasionaria, the head of the Spanish communist party during the thirties. When Franco’s troops invaded Badajoz, they were led by the General Yague, one of Franco’s most savage generals. They butchered half the population of Badajoz. My grandmother told me the story of how the soldiers came to their house and they took my great grandma, and her husband, who was a “guardia de asalto”, (a police officer from the republic) The soldiers were kids… not even twenty. My great grandma was slapping them in the face: “your mother would be ashamed of you” – they took them and executed them like dogs. My grandmother was seven. She went through the city with her sister, looking for her dead parents under the bodies of thousands shot in the streets. The streets of Badajoz were bathed in blood, literally. Franco used colonial troops because they had no attachment to Spanish population. Those soldiers had been trained massacring Moroccan villages during the Rif Wars for years. They didn’t give a shit about killing women and children. And so they did. She’s described those scenes to me with photographic accuracy. It’s worse than anything people want to bother to remember today. So Painless in a sense is a movie I made to exorcise those stories.” //An interview with the director of The Limehouse Golem, DMBarcroft.com, 2017