The maxim “no pain, no gain” finds twisted expression in medical chiller “Painless.” This harrowing study of tykes born without any sensation of pain turns torture-porn conventions inside out while fashioning an allegory on modern Spanish history. 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.
A startling prologue featuring two girls playing with fire reps the pic’s haunting fusion of the visceral and symbolic. In contempo Spain, neurosurgeon David Martell (Alex Brendemuhl) survives a car accident unscathed, but is diagnosed with lymphoma. He turns to his parents (Juan Diego, Angels Poch) for a bone-marrow transplant, but they surprisingly refuse to oblige. It prompts him to uncover shocking secrets about human experimentation and political torture in a prison in Canfranc.
Flashbacks lead to a village in the Pyrenees, circa 1931. A dozen or so children are born with damaged neural systems, resulting in utter insensitivity to pain. Deemed a danger to society and to themselves, they are placed in solitary confinement. The arrival of German-Jewish doctor Holzmann (Derek De Lint) brings hope of humanitarian rehabilitation. Holzmann singles out Benigno (Ilias Stothart) for his unique gifts, as demonstrated by the cold precision with which the boy performs surgery on a puppy. Things go awry when an older Benigno (Mot Stothart) reaches puberty, and his love for fellow-patient Ines (Liah O’Prey) is thwarted. In 1944, when the Nazis move in, Benigno is reinvented as the monstrous figure Berkano (Tomas Lemarquis).
Spanning the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, the film depicts the brutality and brutalizing effect of fascism in a manner not dissimilar to Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The self-destructive nature of civil war is allegorized here in the children’s self-wounding instincts, and visualized grotesquely as bleeding sores. Medina’s technique is astonishing in that he makes auds wince at what the protags cannot feel, then goes one step beyond to demonstrate on metaphorical and psychological levels how easily this condition can be channeled into sociopathic sadism and imperviousness to human suffering.
The screenplay, co-written with Luiso Berdejo, who penned “REC,” offers no explanation on the causes of the tykes’ malady, and as the story progresses, it falls back on genre conventions. Still, in juxtaposing the protags’ immunity from pain with their primal longing for love and basic kindness, the pic maintains tension over their fate, culminating in a deeply humane and moving finale. Child actors are cast to look their part, but perfs are just adequate.
Tech package is polished in spite of the modest budget, turning the 1930s village and dungeon-like asylum into a mise-en-scene that feels medieval in its implied threat through a sublime dance macabre of light and shadow choreographed by lenser Alejandro Martinez.