"The Orphanage" is haunting in every way. Like the impossible compositions in M.C. Escher's perspective-shifting artworks, this Spanish missing-child chiller reveals different meanings depending on your perspective.

It could be a sophisticated haunted-house story with twists and surprises dictated by occult forces. Perhaps it's a psychological thriller whose supernatural elements are imagined by the distraught mother. It may take more than one viewing to decide whether you prefer the fantastic or realistic interpretation; like "The Sixth Sense," this film demands to be seen more than once.

Either explanation is plausible; either way, "The Orphanage" is an unsettling experience, a mini-masterpiece of sustained tension from first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona. The film was recently selected as Spain's entry for the foreign film Oscar, and it deserves the honor. It's an elegant slice of Hispanic panic.

Belén Rueda plays Laura, who returns to the dour orphanage where she spent part of her youth, renovating it as a children's hospital. Fernando Cayo hits the right notes as her supportive physician husband, and Roger Princep is naturalistic and unselfconscious as their young son. Soon after they arrive, the boy reports meeting new imaginary friends who invite him to the dangerous nearby beach, lighthouse and cave. After an ominous masked garden party to inaugurate the new facility, the boy vanishes. When the police exhaust their resources, Laura does her own detective work, which suggests links to crimes committed at the orphanage in her youth.

Eventually she brings in a crew of psychic researchers who declare that paranormal powers are at work. Her husband grows as concerned with her sanity as with their son's disappearance, especially when she becomes convinced that the mansion's creaky floorboards and rattling pipes are evidence that the boy is not really gone. As a psychic played by Geraldine Chaplin puts it, "Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing."

Bayona never spoonfeeds the audience, giving us lots of latitude to exercise our imaginations and believe what we choose as the film builds to its devastating climax.

Rueda, a down-to-earth beauty, won Spain's equivalent of the Oscar as the lawyer fighting for a paralyzed Javier Bardem's right to die in "The Sea Inside." Here she gives an amazing performance of tightly knotted emotions: honest, unaffected determination tangled up with fear and guilt over her boy's disappearance and dark events in the orphanage's past. She's associated with "Peter Pan's" Wendy, a character torn between motherhood and childhood, a deadlock linked to traumatic events at the orphanage years earlier, and her final moments onscreen can be read as tragic or transcendent and hopeful. Or, as in an Escher print, somehow both at once.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186