Insensibles, directed by Juan Carlos Medina, premiered at the Nocturna Film Festival, addresses an intriguing question: what would life be like if we couldn’t feel pain?
The movie chronicles the adventures of a special group of children, beginning in 1931 in a small Catalonian village near the French border. Feeling no sensation from physical harm, the children enjoy setting fire to themselves and carving designs into their own flesh. Locals are incensed—terrified that the oblivious youngsters pose a danger to themselves and to the other children. Ultimately, all the kids who can’t feel pain are rounded up and sent to a psychiatric ward, quarantined from the rest of society.
The movie chronicles the children’s lives through and after the Spanish Civil war, when the facility is occupied by Franco’s army and converted into a facility to interrogate political prisoners. The only child who survives is forced to work for Nationalists and employs his special ability to inflict excruciating pain on political prisoners. He adopts a new name—Berkano—and becomes a monstrous, inhuman beast.
A parallel story unfolds in 2009, also in Catalonia. An accomplished neurosurgeon (David) and his pregnant wife are involved in a terrible car accident. She is killed, but doctors manage to rescue the fetus. David also survives and is forced to undergo a series of tests that reveal that he has advanced-stage cancer. His only hope for survival is a bone marrow transplant, which must come from a biological relative.
When David approaches his parents, they insist that donating would be impossible and refuse to discuss the matter. His mother ultimately confesses that he was adopted. In order to save his own life, David sets out to uncover his shrouded past and locate the relatives who can save him. The two stories ultimately intersect, as David crosses paths with Berkano while searching for his biological parents.
The premise is undeniably compelling, focusing on the theme of isolation—how these children’s condition alienates them from their peers who all have something in common: an understanding of what it’s like to hurt. Whilst the end of the movie answers questions, at the same time it feels somewhat flat and unsatisfying. Many of the characters are not developed sufficiently, and only Berkano’s past is really investigated. We never really learn much about David or his parents.
This film isn’t for those who flinch at the sight of blood; the torture scenes are particularly brutal, and while some gore is expected, it’s questionable as to whether all the bloody violence is necessary.
The stunning and varied settings are perhaps the film’s greatest asset. They manage to be eerie and visually appealing. The penitentiary on the mountain is simultaneously haunting and breathtaking, whilst the Catalunian village is green and picturesque. The protagonist’s childhood home manages to combine quaint and sinister.
Insensibles was a thoroughly appropriate addition to the Nocturna Festival. The film encompasses several of the elements that define cine fantásico: it was chilling, thrilling, and provocative. Moreover, it’s a Spanish production, and the festival primarily aimed to showcase the work of Spanish directors and actors.