Almodóvar. One of the most outrageous, trippy, and original living directors, and one of the most profound…
In this, his startlingly confessional new feature, we find him much subdued but more heartfelt than ever before. Having thrashed through the sound and fury of his eighties youth and struggled through the flames of physical and emotional hell in midlife,Almodóvar has emerged, newly forged into a seer of the resonant realms of full-on adulthood. This latter incarnation is theAlmodóvar revealed in Pain and Glory – the most emotionally rich film I’ve seen in years or maybe ever.
Antonio Banderas as Salvador (Almodóvar in his sixties) is a revelation. This is not the Zorro of yore, nor the psycho of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, nor the mad genius of The Skin I Live In. In a performance that is subtle, vulnerable, and deeply touching, Banderas brings us a man who has been chastened by life, appears to have forsaken his muse, and begun to succumb to his own frailty. Banderas projects, both in his belabored movements and the weary inflection of his voice, the imminent victory of his pain; which pain runs throughout the course of the film, now muted, now throbbing; runs through his every action both physically, due to myriad malfunctioning body parts, and psychically, as he comes to grip with his inability as a writer/director to create.
While it is the physical pain that prevents him from focusing at his desk, it is an element of the psychic one that the longer he stays away from his craft, the more densely the demons from his past gather, hovering around him as he paces through his apartment, a shut-in. For Salvador, as for all artists, the creative process is like a bloodletting and without it, the bad blood wells around the heart, around the will.
Not in the least dreary, however, this film is visually captivating in every frame. Salvador’s Sturm und Drang takes place on a gorgeous set -Almodóvar’s own apartment – an exquisitely curated kaleidoscope of highly saturated colors and art. Sumptuous and thoroughly Spanish. The whitewashed village of his youth provides a stark backdrop reminiscent of the remote beach scenes of the young Fellini in 8 1/2. (And Mastroianni mildly haunts this film as a more juvenile version of a bedeviled director.)
In a marvelous touch, Banderas wears an assemblage ofAlmodóvar’s wardrobe – vertically striped, school-team colored polos, sweaters the color of mustard, blazers the color of dried chili peppers. One dresses well even as the abyss opens at one’s feet; to a long-postponed appointment with his doctor, Salvador dresses in claret colored jeans and a leaf green leather jacket – way to head off the foreboding of possible death. As always,Almodóvar clothes his actresses in florid florals, gem-colored patterns, deeply pigmented slacks, then tops their looks with dyed blonde hair – all in poignant contrast to the natural, walnut-colored locks of his mama.
Light and beauty bubbles up as well, as Salvador revisits his childhood. In his first flashback, a bucolic scene of women washing clothing in a country river, the ever radiant Penelope Cruz kneels on the banks, her young son straddling her like a pony. The women make bawdy remarks about bathing naked then begin singing a flamenco song together as they drape the linens over bushes. Salvador grins at his mother with a clear sense of adoration…
Cut to a series of stunning animated graphics which, narrated almost impassively in Banderas’s sensual Castilian growl, depict the array of maladies that have afflicted him throughout his life.
Now moving back and forth from the current Salvador, more flashbacks reveal his 9 year-old self living in a new town, many of whose citizens dwell in whitewashed underground caves. We see him chosen as a Church choir soloist… tutoring a young laborer, probably 15 years his senior, to read… getting a scholarship to a local seminary, but insisting he will never become a priest… and experiencing a moment of primero deseo, first desire…
The older Salvador is now being urged to break from his quasi-monastic existence to present a screening of a 30 year old film, with that film’s star, Alberto. The problem is that the film was the occasion of a major rift between the two, Yet Salvador sees this screening as a last gasp of his career, and knows he must emerge from his musty solitude to enlist the actor, with whom he has not spoken for all these years. What ensues, and forms the body of the film, is a stunning series of emotional reconnections and contretemps between the two, many of which will prove to be strikingly ironic as the film proceeds.
Asier Gomez, the actor who plays Alberto, is a sprawling force in this role. As a belligerent addict and a man desperate for another chance to act, his final theatrical role reveals him to be a truly gifted performer. Only through this performance do we come to understand the nature of the break between actor and director.
Until Alberto enters the story, Salvador struggles through life apparently divested of human relationships but for his elderly mother, marvelously played by Julieta Serrano, and his friend Mercedes. If we didn’t knowAlmodóvar was gay, we might assume Mercedes was an old lover; she is the only one who seems to care and who will see him through his physical ordeals… But it is clear from all the flashback moments with his Mother (both as the doting Cruz, or in the film’s present time with Serrano) that his soul is forever entwined with hers, a factor trying to both at times. Though she is now dead, her specter yet inhabits him.
There are two huge spoilers I will not offer, since to encounter them, as revealedby Almodóvar, makes the film so much more impactful. Suffice it say that one yields a bounty of pathetic humor and the other – scenes of passion that are both restrained and breath-taking.
The last scene is masterful. A poignant nod to the craft of filmmaking as a dynamo of storytelling, it is a perfect glimpse at how artifice can make the real more real. The scene is a beautiful tableau in which Cruz, having slept on a bus station floor, and the young Salvador, who has slept on the bench above her, awaken. It is an almost reverse Pieta and fitting homage to bothAlmodóvar’s Catholic youth and the sacrifices of his mother, and to the way he has fused both in his own personal transcendence.
This film will be loved by any adult who has a complex emotional life. And for those who don’t, this film might open a way to develop one. The importance of Pain and Glory lies in its evocation of the primal need to create and the transformative power of love. The pain and glory are inherent in both.