Synopsis: A film director reflects on the choices he’s made in life as past and present come crashing down around him.
Stars: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Julieta Serrano, Kiti Mánver, Nora Navas
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Throughout his nearly 40-year career, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has come to be associated with bright, bold, adventurous films that pushed boundaries and buttons with the kind of glee only someone with a true love of cinema could get away with. He’s a lot like Quentin Tarantino in that he clearly has a deep respect for movies and the filmmaking process and treats each of his pictures as a work of art, carefully constructing them to be just so. You know when a new Almodóvar film comes to the screen that it’s the result of a considerable amount of ideas and always with a piece of the director himself obviously (or not so obviously) pinned within.
In Almodóvar’s newest work, Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) the Oscar-winning director turns in his most personal work yet, a thinly veiled autobiographical exploration of a man celebrated for his directorial achievements now facing a decline in success and ambition. Looking back at his childhood during the 1960s, his young adult life in the 1980s, and then in the present as he reconnects with people from his past he has unresolved issues with, the movie isn’t strictly a recounting of Almodóvar’s life but from what I gather it hews fairly close to what we knew of his trajectory.
As his greatest film is being re-released on the eve of its 30th anniversary, Spanish director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, The 33) is drawn to get back in touch with the star of that film who he hasn’t spoken to since their movie was first in theaters. Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) is reluctant at first to welcome Salvador back into his life but soon the men are speaking like old friends with Alberto even introducing Salvador to heroin which he promptly becomes dependent on. It’s during his drug episodes that Salvador retreats into memories of his childhood with his mother (Penelope Cruz, Murder on the Orient Express and, later, Julieta Serrano) and several episodic awakenings he has growing up.
Back in the present, Salvador begins to expunge some of his old hang-ups and regrets through his writing which Alberto performs as monologues at a local theater. One audience member (Leonardo Sbaraglia) hears the monologue and recognizes a story as an affair he had with Salvador and asks Alberto to help him locate Salvador so that they may both have closure to what was obviously an important time for both men. It’s this scene that really speaks volumes about the loneliness Salvador feels, realizing whatever demons he thought were gone with his writing might still be around when he sees his former lover. It’s ostensibly just a scene between two former flames but Banderas and Sbaraglia create a palpable chemistry that clues you into just how deep their relationship was back in the day.
As with all Almodóvar films, there are a lot of characters to keep track of and intertwining timelines with chance occurrences that can only happen in the movies. It’s these very cinematic touches that remind us we’re watching a movie but don’t rob the scene from its realism in emotion, strong feelings Almodóvar doesn’t seem to have trouble evoking. That’s what makes his films so special over time, even the zanier films of the ‘80s and ‘90s that were off-the-wall were rooted in a particular emotional resonance that just happened to be amplified in volume by Almodóvar’s artistic touches.
As Almodóvar’s pseudo stand-in, Banderas turns in the best work in quite some time, maybe ever. Winning the prestigious Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, he’s surely on his way to his first Best Actor Oscar nomination and with good reason. Playing the rascally side of Salvador with a nice flicker in his eye while parlaying that into a deep sadness at his loss of inspiration for what he used to love doing, the long-standing relationship Banderas has with Almodóvar surely helped him in getting the performance just right. The Salvador-Alberto relationship is supposedly based on the Almodóvar-Banderas one and it’s interesting to watch Banderas as Almodóvar interact with another actor playing a version of himself.
For her brief cameo, Cruz (another frequent Almodóvar collaborator) makes a strong impression as Salvador’s strong-willed mother who pushed her son to go his own way, even when it was contradictory do the norm. I didn’t quite believe Cruz’s character would have aged into Serrano’s but both actresses carry the same steely resilience of a parent holding fast to helping their child through all thorny walks of life. Serrano and Banderas share some great scenes that are sensitive and thought provoking until they become heart breaking by the film’s conclusion.
After countless films that range in genre and tone, Almodóvar’s latest represents a welcome leveling off reflection of a career and a life. Not as awash in colors or jarring to the senses as his early work, nor as challenging as his later entries that tipped toward campy thrillers, this feels like Almodóvar exhaling and letting go of a different kind of evoked emotion all together.