All About Almodóvar
DIRECTED BY PEDRO ALMODÓVAR/SPANISH/2019
In a gentle flurry of primary gloss and familiar faces, filmmaking icon Pedro Almodóvar takes us on a sensitive yet unrestrained look at parts of his own story. Or, as Warren Zevon put it in his own twilight offering, his “dirty life and times”. Is Almodóvar actually as physically uncomfortable and in chronic pain as his representative character in this film is?
Almodóvar is never been one to shy away from the personal, the uncomfortable, and sometimes gleefully fusing the two into something provocative or uncomfortable. This, though, is another level. There’s an undeniably strong aspect of autobiography here, one of the filmmaker himself freely acknowledges when he says that Fellini’s 8 1/2 is a primary influence. While Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) may lack that film’s mind-capturing surrealism, it’s no less oneiric and it’s on beautiful, stealthier way. The title refers to not just his life in the film industry, but his life around it. This is a movie that loves cinema but hates the cost of crafting it.
Like Fellini’s masterwork, Pain and Glory stars its director’s career-long surrogate actor, in this case, Antonio Banderas. (His shadow is indeed casting him.) Banderas, complete with Almodóvar‘s trademark exploding gray-bushel hairstyle, plays the starring role of an aging film director beginning to consider the end with compelling melancholy and surprising humility. There’s a patience to his performance, but a restlessness in his spirit. He’s chasing that twinkle that was once in his eye but having to limp when he does it. That Banderas can sell this depth of both sorrow (for his many foolish mistakes) and gratitude (for the opportunities his amazing career has afforded him) while remaining completely magnetic in terms of just how much the camera loves him, makes him the perfect actor for this role, across the board.
For the character, Spanish auteur Salvador Mallo, the increasing celebration of his legacy is nothing but a burden. It is a burden, though, that reunites him with his own long-estranged onscreen surrogate, Alberto Crespo, played by a seethingly cool Asier Etxeandia. While Alberto and Salvador don’t exactly click back into their former groove, Salvador is comfortable enough to ask to join him in “chasing the dragon”, i.e. smoking heroin. It’s a poor choice, and Alberto knows it. But how can he refuse the man who made him, particularly when he’s already partaking right in front of him?
Sure enough, Salvador’s shrugging what-the-hell attitude gives way to a low-level dependency. It’s a big deal, even if the film barely treats it as such. Rather, Almodóvar lets our expectations play out without ever telegraphing them. Instead, he assumes a position of detached empathy, intercutting between this current day haggard and in-pain version of Salvador and scenes from his youth.
The youthful scenes, mostly of young Salvador and his mother (Almodóvar regular and muse, Penelope Cruz) are presented with a certain sweetness that eludes the Banderas sequences. We see how the simple (I.e., impoverished) life was, for the boy, an adventure set in idyllic Spanish country sides and later, moving into a wondrous subterranean dwelling. Although the stress of this life took its toll on his mother, Salvador thrived in his own ways. It is here that he comes into writing and story, going as far to teach their illiterate carpenter how to read. One afternoon, the strapping carpenter is so filthy with paint and sweat that he opts to strip naked and clean off in the family’s wash basin. Young Salvador’s lifelong sexual attraction to men is awakened. In poverty, he’s a happy child. In celebrated wealth, he’s tortured- both in spirit, and in health.
Avid viewers of Almodóvar’s decades-long oeuvre already know that he can be selective in his autobiographical sharing. Pain and Glory, though far more transparent in terms of being a blatant confessional, is nonetheless missing any representation of his strong-willed childhood sisters. In other words, any expectation or assumption of this being a comprehensive portrait need to be put aside. What can be assured is a expertly-realized concentrated melancholy, told in the uniquely Almodóvar idiom of near-reality. Not that this is his surrogate’s fate, but here’s hoping he isn’t truly going to fade to black anytime soon.
Some days I feel like my shadow’s casting me
Some days the sun don’t shine
Sometimes I wonder what tomorrow’s gonna bring
When I think about my dirty life and times
– “Dirty Life and Times“ by Warren Zevon