Sunday brought with it my first full-on disappointment of this year’s festival, Juan Carlos Medina’s PAINLESS (INSENSIBLES). This isn’t to suggest that the film is bad, just that it didn’t deliver for me in comparison to other like-minded films. More on that in a moment.
PAINLESS begins with a car accident. In this accident, our protagonist David miraculously survives, but his pregnant wife is killed though the doctors are able to deliver their infant prematurely before she passes. David’s medical exam t the time of the accident shows that he has a rare case of lymphoma, and that while operable, he’ll need a rare bone marrow that only his birth parents would be a match for. In asking his adopted parents about his birth parents, he gets strong-armed.
The story continues to flip back to the time of the Spanish Civil War. In this era, a small group of children have been discovered to be impervious to pain. These children have been rounded up as a danger to themselves and to others, and all of them have been handed over to a sanatorium. The doctors there try to teach the children about the pain the rest of us feel, and are extremely intrigued by the bright-yet-silent boy from cell 17. Unfortunately, at this point, The Spanish Civil War breaks out, followed closely by WWII, and the children’s hope is all but lost.
There are two reasons why I wasn’t bowled over by this film. The first comes down to tension – there was none. When the film first begins, we meet a little girl who is fascinated by setting her arm on fire. We have no idea how she can do it, and the sight of her in no pain, but only curious by the act, is a wonderful one. After that though, the film never comes back to that sort of wonder. Every scene feels like it’s waiting for something to happen; every scene feels like it has lost its way back to that place of wonder by the campfire. I wanted to squirm in this film – I wanted to be afraid and awed by these children, but those feelings never came.
The other hiccup comes down to mystery, or rather lack thereof. When David goes looking for his family’s history, the film wants to set up an intricate thriller about his origin. Problem is, it’s pretty darned easy to figure out some permutation of his history, which takes all of the drama out of that half of the tale. The reveal actually reminded me of another recent film that did it all better – a story that aimed for “shocking”, and did indeed shock the audience.
PAINLESS isn’t a bad film, but it something in its construction takes a lot of the thrill out of the tale. It comes with a few wonderful visuals, and a few great performances. However, when intrigue is such a key target a story is trying to hit and it misses, there’s only so much left to carry you through.