Directed by Juan Carlos Medina
Opening in Catalonia in the 1930s, director Juan Carlos Medina’s Painless offers a startling first scene featuring a young girl playfully setting fire to her own arm before encouraging another child to do the same. Tragically, it would appear that the second youngster is not as bereft of pain receptors as her companion, and is quickly overcome by roaring flame and screaming agony. Moving on to the present day, Medina turns his focus to David (Brendemühl), a successful neurosurgeon who after an inexplicable minor blackout behind the wheel of his car finds himself waking up in hospital to multiple pieces of seriously bad news. First, his pregnant wife has died in the crash (however, the child has been saved and is currently held in the incubator ward), and second, routine scans taken to probe the extent of his injuries have discovered the presence of advanced Lymphoma – leaving David with only months to live. His only salvation is in a bone marrow transplant, but the donor must come from his immediate family. David’s problems are merely compounded, however, when his parents reveal the tearful news that they aren’t his biological parents, and therefore cannot offer to donate. As his father refuses to go into any more detail regarding David’s origins, his search for answers lead him to the asylum turned orphanage in which Painless‘ alternate timeline predominantly takes place.
This alternate timeline is also the most interesting part of Medina’s film, focusing on the group of children from a nearby village all suffering from the same affliction – a total inability to feel, or understand, pain. Locked away for the good of both themselves and the ‘normal’ children of the village, the kids are observed and taught by German absconder/refugee Dr. Holzmann (Lint) alongside the more ruthless, and less understanding, Dr. Carcedo. As the years move on and the Spanish Civil War and World War II carve their marks into the local history, this thread focuses on young boy Benigno – one who demonstrates particular intelligence and medical talent, but is frequently let down by his own flopping attention span and propensity for violent reaction in the face of overbearing authority. While David’s modern-day search continues to lead down the road to personal ruin, so too does Benigno’s time in the orphanage as malignant external forces soon assume control of the facility, adopting the (now) young man – rechristened ‘Berkano’ by his new commandants – as a talented torturer whose self-scarred visage is enough in itself to strike fear into the hearts of those captives upon whom he is set.
As you can probably tell, Painless is no light-hearted fare. Determinedly grim, it’s also a beautiful looking piece of work filled with gorgeous vistas, semi-gothic imagery and some fantastic period costume design. The opening car crash, too, is visually striking. Unfortunately, it’s frequently let down by some sluggish pacing when it comes to the less-than-enthralling modern day element, which feels uncomfortably drawn-out as the end of David’s search (slowly) approaches. There’s a decided lack of empathy in David’s story, which leaves most of the twists, turns and shocking revelations and occurrences found within deficient in the impact they truly require. Far more interesting and involving, though, is the tale of the afflicted children which weaves a consistently gripping mixture of grim fantasy with the even more grim historical reality of a country tearing itself apart and the civilians caught in the middle. Brutality and abuse abound, as the children and their friendlier wards try desperately to hold onto their own humanity amidst the growing chaos.
Unfortunately for many, such a feat seems beyond reach as Medina sombrely reflects on the personal effects of times of war – yet even in its most heartbreaking moments, Painless never succeeds in making a complete connection with the audience, but most certainly not through lack of trying.
This lack of complete engagement leaves a number of perplexing plot choices all the harder to ignore (most glaringly Berkano’s ability to survive for such an extended time either locked up, or quite literally walled up, in his cell), and plays a major role in the failure of the film’s denouement, wherein Medina is obviously shooting for the stars in terms of poignancy and emotional resonance, but lacks the fuel to get there and comes crashing down, hard, leaving a finale that feels little more than misguidedly self-assured and indulgent.
Painless looks stunning and spins a capable yarn but it frequently hits wide of its lofty goals, grasping for the heart strings but more often tugging on patience instead. The production design is more than admirable, as are the excellent performances from adults and children alike (Brendemühl in particular does a sterling job as the sympathetic physician), and many will find much to love in Medina’s presentation but the disjointed and ultimately unfulfilling narrative leaves it a regretfully hollow experience by the time the end credits roll.
2 1/2 out of 5