Review by: Topo Sanchez
SCUM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Painless is the impressive directorial debut of Spanish director Juan Carlos Medina, and what a brave debut it is. Set in Catalonia, the film is essentially a double tale — one set in the 1930s through to the 60s, and the other in modern day Spain — that is intricately woven into one.
Medina pulls no punches and opens the film with a truly disturbing scene that is bound to shut up any annoying chatter lingering in the cinema after the light goes out. (maybe all films should have an opening sequence with this effect!) A little girl finds her friend, Ines, in the forest playing with fire. Ines’ right hand is covered in flames but she looks bemused at the sight. Ines then signals her friend to come play with her, and pours kerosene over her head before reaching out to hold her hand. Needless to say, her friend didnt find it as amusing.
Cut to modern day Spain. An overworked surgeon David Martel is taking his pregnant wife for a long overdue holiday. Dozing off at the wheel, they got into a serious accident which left the wife dead and their 6-month old baby on life support system. Because of this accident, David discovers that he suffers from leukemia and is in need of a bone marrow transplant urgently. To minimize the risk of his body rejecting the donor tissue, he isadvised to get the transplant from someone biologically similar, namely his parents.
Deciding to go through with the transplant procedure for the sake of his newborn, David is devastated to find out that his mom and dad are not his actual biological parents, and therefore not able to be donors. Recovering from the shock of the double blow, he sets out to track down his real parents and uncover the truth.
Meanwhile, in 1930 civil-warring Spain, a special group of children is discovered and sent to an asylum for treatment. Like Ines from the opening scene, these children does not have the ability to feel any physical pain. The star of the show, Benigno, was found eating his own flesh to satiate his hunger. The director of the asylum ordered each child to be restrained in a straitjacket (Benigno had an additional gag to prevent him from any more unscheduled ‘snacks’) and kept in isolation in individual cells to prevent them from hurting themselves. This went on for a few years, until a nurse decides to write a letter to a famous German scientist, Dr. Holzmann, to ask for help. Being a jew seeking refuge from the Third Reich, Dr. Holzmann agrees to help treat the children in exchange for food and shelter.
As the treatment progresses, Dr. Holzmann notices Benigno to be different from the other kids. He seems to be gifted with a superior intellect and motor skills, and demonstrates this when he skilfully performs an operation on a puppy to remove a tumour from its kidney. But the director of the asylum will hear none of it and even labels Benigno as possibly the most dangerous troublemaker of the lot. He denies Benigno any further contact from the German doctor after a horrific incident involving a nurse getting her archilles heel slashed (ouch!).
Director Medina masterfully plays with the concept of time while weaving the two tales – one from the past charging forward and the other from present day looking back. Benigno’s development into Berkano (watch for yourself to find out) is mirrored by the development of Spain’s own political climate from civil war to World War 2. On the other end, David’s search for his parents unpeels more and more layers of secrets from the past. Where will the two stories intersect? How is David related to the asylum?
I think this film works on many levels. It has an intriguing script, the makeup and film sets are amazingly detailed and the pace of the film is perfect because of the superb editing. Please do yourself a favour and watch this film!