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‘The Impossible’

by Giovanni Fazio

Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” had the misfortune of having opened in local cinemas just before March 11, 2011. After the trauma of a real-life tsunami hitting Japan, few were in the mood to see a Hollywood special-effects version of the same.

It’s been over two years since the events of 3/11, but I wonder whether it might still be too soon for people here to take “The Impossible.”

I walked into a screening of this one — coincidentally, on the afternoon of March 11 this year — knowing nothing about it except that Naomi Watts was Oscar-nominated for her role, and that the director was Juan Antonio Bayona, who had made “The Orphanage,” one of the creepiest films of the last decade. So when that wall of water rolled over the rooftops of the Thai resort engulfing Watts and every other character in the film, it was a shock from which it took a few days to recover. (No spoilers below, mind you, and I’d avoid the trailers: They give too much away.)

“The Impossible” is set during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which saw 30-meter-high waves demolish much of coastal Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, with over 230,000 dead and missing, a figure that dwarfs Japan’s own tragedy (largely due to Japan’s well-rehearsed tsunami alert system). Bayona works from a memoir by María Belón, a tsunami survivor, which is a good thing, because no one would believe this near-miraculous story of survival if it weren’t true.

Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, parents on a much-needed Christmas vacation in tropical Khao Lak, Thailand, with their three preteen sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast). McGregor and Watts — who previously costarred together in 2005′s “Stay” — have an easy chemistry and with only a few scenes pull us quickly into the bond that exists between this couple, which is important, because it’s about to be severely tested.

One of the film’s most terrifying moments — and one captured in several famous photos of the actual tsunami — is the moment where the wave starts hurtling inland, as high as the treetops, and you see people just frozen, staring at it, unable to believe their eyes fast enough to run.

And then it hits.

I know how someone like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich would direct this bit, and I know that I wouldn’t like it much: destruction as entertaining spectacle, sanitized death, over-the-top heroics. Bayona seeks not the thrill of destruction but the horror: “The Impossible” is a terrifying film, all the more so for its attempts at realism. Bayona’s realization of the tsunami impact — and the futile, helpless attempts to survive by those caught up in it — is the most pummeling cinematic experience I’ve had since the opening 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.”

If it was terror alone, it would be hard to recommend “The Impossible,” but when the waves recede, the film turns into a story of survival, faith and compassion. The “heroics” are those of persistence and strength, of holding on and believing past the point of total despair.

Anyone who was in Japan two years ago harbors that horrible queasy knowledge that everything can go wrong in an instant. “The Impossible” is an all-too-potent reminder of that.